DHS survey shows ‘relatively stable’ student mental health increases in last two years


Patrick Jones


The Utah Department of Human Services (DHS) recently released the bi-annual Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey detailing comprehensive mental health, substance use, and COVID-19 impact data among Utah students. 

The survey found that behavioral and mental health remained “relatively stable” in several metrics in 2021, even with the COVID-19 pandemic’s distancing guidelines. However, feelings of social isolation and the number of students not seeking support increased. 


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Founded in 2003, the SHARP is an anonymous and voluntary survey taken by students in grades six, eight, ten, and twelve every two years. The survey was conducted in spring of 2021 and over 70,000 students participated. The purpose of the survey to, “aid in prevention efforts in areas of youth substance use, mental health, and health and wellness.”

The survey is divided into 27 different reports consisting of one general report with all the state’s data and other specialized reports based on data around county, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. 


Mental Health

Though DHS feared significant increases in mental health issues during the pandemic, Susannah Burt, prevention administrator at DHS, said mitigation efforts led to a relatively stable increase in mental health treatment and suicidal ideation consistent with pre-pandemic trends.

The survey showed a 1% increase in suicidal ideation and planning in 2021 compared to 2019, but only a 0.1% increase in attempted suicides.


Image: Utah Department of Human Services


Suicide consideration is much greater among LGBTQ+ students in Utah. Gay and lesbian students considered suicide 33.9% more than heterosexual students, and bisexual students had a 36.7% higher consideration rate. 

The need for mental health treatment has gone up statewide. According to the report, 24.6% of students surveyed need mental health treatment — a 5.3% increase from 2019. The need for services is greater in students of color, as shown in the graph below.


Image: Utah Department of Human Services


Social isolation also increased amongst students. The survey said 21.7% of students felt isolated from others, which is a 6.4% increase from 2019. Similar numbers were found of students who felt that people barely know them. 

Youth are also less likely to talk about their issues in 2021. The number of students who needed help in the 30 days prior to the survey and did not talk to anyone about it increased 7.3% from 2019. Programs like SafeUT are attempting to mitigate this issue by creating an anonymous chat center to talk to a counselor on demand. SafeUT saw an increase in utilization this year from students.


Substance Use

According to the report, all substance use rates decreased in 2021, except the use of inhalants. The survey reported data both from youths’ use within the last 30 days and their use throughout their lives. Below is a graph of some of the more common substances abused by students.


Image: Utah Department of Human Services


COVID-19 Impacts

The survey said 33% of participants reported feeling sad, anxious, or hopeless due to the pandemic. Twelfth graders had the highest percentage in this category at 42.9%. The survey also said 13.4% students were unable to keep up with their studies due to unreliable technology access. 


Image: Utah Department of Human Services


Asian and Asian American students and multi-racial students felt the most anxious, sad, or hopeless due to COVID-19 at 35.2% and 39.5%, respectively. In comparison, white students were at 33.5% and Black students were at 26.3%. 

However, Burt said prevention efforts throughout the pandemic mitigated higher increases in student mental health issues.

“Utah has invested a lot of time and resources building up strong protective systems, such as coalitions, in our communities because we were already seeing a high need prior to the pandemic. Of course COVID-19 has been an incredibly stressful reality — but we have been building prevention, help-seeking, harm reduction, and treatment strategies over time, which have protected youth during the pandemic and helped mitigate harm.”