Health department report details increased mental health struggles and decreased substance use among Utah adolescents


Patrick Jones


The Utah Department of Health (DOH), Department of Human Services (DHS), and State Board of Education partnered to release a report on the health status of Utah adolescents. The report found continued increases in mental health struggles in Utah children, but also found a decrease in substance use. 


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The report’s findings use data from the Prevention Needs Assessment survey, which is a part of the School Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) project. SHARP released their own report on the health status of Utah students in Oct. 2021. 

The survey targeted a random sample of students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12. These students took a self-administered web questionnaire in Spring 2021. A large portion of the report focused on  adolescents’ mental health, substance use, and effect of COVID-19 on their lives. 

Student mental health struggles continued to trend upward. One of the biggest increases is in students experiencing psychological distress. According to the study, 27.2% of students experience psychological distress, which is around 6% more than last survey year in 2019 (21.5%). 

Psychological distress is measured by the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6), which involves 6 questions about a person’s emotional state. 

Here is a graph of psychological distress percentages in relation to survey years, differences between grade, and differences in gender. 


Image: Utah Department of Health


The report also highlighted an increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Of respondents, 35.1% reported feeling sad and hopeless for at least 2 consecutive weeks to a point where “it becomes difficult to enjoy activities or perform daily tasks.” This represents a 5% increase from 2019 (30.7%), and is much more common in females at 42.9%. 

Students also reported an increase in self-harm at 18.6%, an increase of around 2.5% from 2019 (16.2%). In 2021, 19% of students reported suicidal ideation and 14.4% reported making a plan about how they would attempt suicide within the past 12 months. 

Though mental health struggles continued to increase, substance use decreased significantly in Utah adolescents in 2021. Though more students reported using a vape product more than anything else, only 7.8% of students reported using them in the past 30 days. This represents around a 5% decrease since 2019 (12.4%). 


Image: Utah Department of Health


Binge drinking for students has also gone down significantly. In 2021, 3.1% of students reported binge drinking versus almost 5% in 2019. Current alcohol use also decreased and stood at 5.3% of students in 2021 versus 7.1% in 2019. 

Marijuana use, use of not prescribed medicines, and cigarette smoking also decreased in 2021. 

The report also detailed how COVID-19 impacted students. Of students, 29% reported getting sick with COVID-19, which is 3 times the known positive test rate (7.8%) for this age group as of May 31st, 2021. The report said that reported cases may account for other similar respiratory illnesses. 

Students also felt stressed and hopeless because of this pandemic. Of students, 36.7% reported feeling anxious, sad, or hopeless this past year due to COVID-19.