Mental health disparities among Vermont children are clear in youth survey



Published: 05-24-2023 4:41 PM

A biennial survey conducted during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic shows poor mental health among high school and middle school students, especially in groups that previous surveys found have long suffered more than their peers.

According to the 2021 results released by the Vermont Department of Health on Monday, girls and LGBTQ+ students reported significantly higher rates of experiencing poor mental health “most of the time” or “always” than boys and those who identify as heterosexual and cisgender. For girls, the percentage was 49%, and for LGBTQ+ students the percentage was 59%, compared to an overall response of 35%.

Those two groups, as well as students of color, were also more likely to act on those feelings with self-harm and plans for suicide. For example, students of color were almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide in the last 12 months than white students, while LGBTQ+ students were more than three times as likely as other kids.

The results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey were not surprising to analysts and administrators at the Vermont Department of Health.

“We learn what we usually learn, which is that some populations are affected more than others,” said Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health. “It’s very consistent in that way.”

Similar kinds of health impact disparities are found in surveys of adults, Levine said in an interview. But the new information emphasizes how important it will be for the department to return its focus to achieving health equity, he said.

The issue was magnified by the pandemic, while the department’s programming “was interrupted significantly by an all-hands-on-deck phenomenon.”

The survey has been given to teenagers and pre-teens in Vermont every two years since the early 1990s. But in its report, the department cautions against comparing this year’s data with those from previous years.

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Disruptions of in-person schooling from the pandemic meant that schools gave the survey to students in the fall of 2021 rather than the spring months as usual. This meant that students that responded were younger as a whole than the typical cohort that takes the survey, which would affect the responses, Levine said.

“I can’t imagine it not having an impact, but we don’t know the magnitude of the impact,” he said.

The department expects to return to the previous pattern of giving the survey this year.

While the survey provides bleak results in the realm of mental health, it also offers bright spots related to protective factors, which can help students.

Almost three-quarters of all high school students reported having dinner at least four times a week with a parent or guardian. Additionally, 88% said that their parents or another adult always or most of the time knew where they would be, and 70% said that they had at least one teacher or other adult at their school they could talk to with a problem.