Teen health survey arriving at charged moment reports ‘historic’ level of mental health struggle

The doors of the Cambridge Range and the Latin School. (Photo: Molly Marshall via Flickr)

With 400 students on strike to protest against culture of sexual assault and harassment and the third student death of the school year, the city’s latest Adolescent Health Survey was examined Tuesday by the School Committee’s Climate Subcommittee. Some of the highlights that bothered the participants included a “historic” level of mental health struggle between children and thoughts of suicide over the past months.

Some worrying survey results:

  • Mental health among young people has worsened during the pandemic, with symptoms of depression and anxiety increasing.
  • There was a decline in social connections, with fewer students saying they had one close friend, teacher, or other adult to talk to.
  • The coronavirus has had effects that include students having difficulty concentrating, fears of infection, and attempts to stay away from people due to this fear and anxiety about returning to school.
  • Safety concerns appear to be higher for females and students of both sexes, with the exception of violence, which worries black, African-American, and Asian youth.

The survey also included some bright spots:

  • There was a sharp drop in the number of students who said they used alcohol, marijuana, smoked cigarettes, or vaping.
  • Although the students reported less physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption remained stable and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages decreased.

This was the first year that high school and middle school students were pooled in a survey, the first time students had a say in the questions asked and in the first year the survey was conducted online, but the numbers of respondents fell nonetheless, said Jimmy McCarthy, As said Jamie McCarthy, district K-12 curriculum coordinator for health, physical education, and wellness. Participation was lower than we had hoped, with about 3,000 middle and high school students participating, or about 55 percent of high school students and about 75 percent of high school students, McCarthy told officials at Tuesday’s virtual meeting.

McCarthy said that despite this, the survey results were similar to those reported in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in school districts across the country.

The survey showed that mental health struggles increased as students got older – in fact, younger children reported taking fewer medications and seeing less therapists and school counselors, while the opposite was true for older children – but added to what McCarthy described as “historic”. “An increase in students reporting feeling sad or hopeless nearly every day for two weeks or more in a row — tops the list of things that cause them stress is that in the past school itself and academic performance have always led, followed by such issues as social justice and physical appearance and then issues Social.Sex-enthusiastic students felt mental health suffering most acutely, with 65 percent of them in the survey answering that they had suffered in the past 30 days.

Fifteen percent of students in high school admitted to contemplating suicide, McCarthy said, the highest rate ever, while 11 percent of students in middle school reported the same, which was consistent with the last survey before the pandemic. That adds up to 52 high school students with a suicide plan, 44 in middle school—and among those who attempted suicide were 16 in high school and 13 in middle school.

Although the survey was anonymous, at the students’ suggestion, it included a popup that appeared for respondents who said they had contemplated suicide. Included are phone numbers for help and an opportunity for children to get to know themselves. “A number of students have already put their names in,” McCarthy said.

However, while “mental health in general has worsened during the pandemic,” McCarthy said, “there has been a decrease in reported self-harm.”

‘working for us’

Considering other factors — including that more than 1 in 5 students, or 22 percent, reported the death of a close family member or friend within the past 12 months — said Rachel Weinstein, the panel’s co-chair. “Whether it’s grieving the loss of life or suicide or the development of identity and acceptance, there is a lot going on here and there is a lot of work for all of us to do.”

School committee member Rachel Weinstein, seen in 2020, led Tuesday’s meeting on teen health. (Photo: Derek Koyomjian)

Caroline Turk, deputy assistant superintendent, said the district is looking for someone to coordinate a social and emotional learning response that will include community partners, and even urged people at the meeting to submit the names of people who could take on the role. “We have to remember that we are not the organization with the most experience offering a medical or health plan. We need to partner with people who have that expertise,” Al Turk said. “We are in the process of trying to identify someone who will be able to coordinate many services.”

“This is not an area we can think of in terms of doing anything in isolation. Did you know that this shirt is – ‘just a Cambridge kid’? If you’re a Cambridge kid, you have to be able to rely on your whole community, not On just one part.” “We need to be able to wrap our arms around our guys to make sure they get what they need.”

Wellness Waiver Policy

Committee members, students Anais Killian and Norell Vera Degraaf, said there are things that can be done inside the school.

Students have touched on school health programs over the years, beginning with every second, third, and fifth grader getting health education on a weekly basis for at least one semester to a high school student who needs five health credits to graduate. McCarthy, in implementing the requirements at the request of the students, acknowledged that “high school is our greatest need for improvement,” in which a teen may receive health education one day a week for one semester in the ninth grade.

There is also a sports waiver policy that allows students to skip wellness.

“If students play a sport in grades 10 through 12, they don’t have to take their health in those grades. And so students may not hear about consent or even hear a word of consent for that time period, which is really worrying,” Killian said.

District wellness instructor Michael O’Connell summed up the approach to health approaches in general: “We encourage, oddly enough, a culture that says it’s not so important.”

Next steps

Damon Smith, principal of Cambridge Rindge School and Latin High School, outlined some ways “we don’t wait” when it comes to health issues, particularly after the November 24 death of student Salman Marzouki – the death of a former student this school year was a suicide – and Tuesday’s eviction. The district has added social workers, developed a “Building Resilience for Youth in Transition” program and expanded opportunities in extracurricular activities. “However, we still have the results that we see in the Adolescent Health Survey,” Smith said. “I think the kind of village programmatic response is something we need. There can never be enough ways we can support our scientists.”

The subcommittee had hoped for an update Tuesday on requests from students that included matters relating to the strike: conduct adult-facilitated conversations about sexual assault and harassment and improve incident reporting policies around those crimes; and ensuring that all ninth graders are educated about consent issues. Additionally, members are considering updating the Athlete Wellness Waiver Policy; Inclusion of mental health in wellness curricula; And a meeting dedicated to issues faced by gender or LGBTQIA+ students—and possibly a meeting for high school students.

“We’re not even talking about violence, drug use, and other crises that are burning right now,” Weinstein said.

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