News10NBC Investigates: The crisis in the hearts and heads of our teenagers
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Teenagers just lived through years of COVID, school shutdowns, social media explosions, and record breaking gun violence.
Every two years, the Monroe County Public Health Department surveys students ages 14 to 18, to see what they’re going through.
News10NBC used those surveys to see where our teenagers are now, compared to 10 years ago.
And what we found is that our teens are in trouble.
If you know anyone who is suffering and you’re concerned that they might be considering suicide, call 988 or click here.
That’s the hotline for Partners for Suicide Prevention.
You can also call 211.
That is a local help line.
One of the survey’s red alert questions is Question #21.
It asks teenagers if they have “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.”
Anne Kern, Public Health Program Coordinator: “And that’s one of the questions we’ve seen a significant increase in.”
Brean: “From what to what?”
Kern: “It was around 20-some percent about 10 years ago and it’s up to 35% now.”
Brean: “Is a 15% increase significant?”
Ann Kern runs the teenager survey. We went in-depth on Question #21. When you look at how girls’ answered it, the result jumps to 42%.
Brean: “What does it tell you?”
Kern: “It tells me youth are struggling.”
“Have you ever felt like that?” I asked Dahnae Gano, a senior at Spencerport high school.
“Yeah,” she answered.
Gayno is on the Spencerport girls’ flag football team and wants to get into STEM. But, like a lot of teens, there have been dark times.
“Definitely after freshman year when COVID first hit in 2020, it was a whole different ballgame,” she said. “Staying homes for weeks, months, not doing anything. Everybody is wearing masks. You can’t go outside. “
Every two years the county public health department produces the Youth Risk Behavior Survey Report.
Read the 2021-22 report:
The survey asks teenagers about family issues, sex, drugs, violence, and mental health. 19,282 students took the survey in 2021.
In the last 10 years, the survey shows some behaviors have gone down like sex, and the use of cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol. The answers say acts of discrimination and racism have gone up. But the thing that appears to concern schools the most is mental health.
The latest survey says there is an increase in the percentage of girls who seriously considered attempting suicide and who made a specific plan to do it.
“So an increase in students reporting thoughts of suicidality, thoughts of coming up with a plan of how to harm themselves and not knowing who to talk to about that stuff is very concerning,” saYS Kate Zobkiw, the school drug and alcohol counselor at Spencerport schools.
Brean: “Ten years ago it was here and now it’s here. What do you attribute that to?”
Zobkiw: “We’ve talked a lot about social media, right? I think there is the bullying aspect of social media, the fact that kids will just say anything to one another without a filter. I really feel that kids feel like can say anything and they believe what people are saying to them too, I think that’s the hard part.”
The surveys show mental health problems started going up around 2007 and again in 2011.
Twitter started in 2006.
Instagram in 2010.
Snapchat in 2011.
Tiktok in 2017.
The survey finds a connection.
Anne Kern: “So the girls who spend five or more hours on screen time are much more likely to report feeling sad or hopeless compared to girls who spend less time on screen time.”
Brean: “So, there’s a relationship between time spend on social media and how they feel?”
Kern: “Yes, but we don’t know if it’s a causation relationship, right?”
In other words, they don’t know if teens feel worse because they spend more time on social media or if they spend more time on social media because they feel worse.
“What makes you feel better?” I asked Dahnae Gano.
“I think as teenagers, a majority of us go to school and I think it starts with the staff members have a smile on their face,” she said. “A laugh goes a long way. A smile goes a long way. A hug goes a long way.”
Does COVID play a role in the survey?
The survey says there is no doubt COVID influenced the 2021-22 survey including what appear to be positive changes. For instance, compared to a decade ago, the survey shows fewer students brought a gun to school or got attacked or threatened at school.
Ann Kern believes that’s because thousands students were away from school during COVID. She and others are concerned about what the answers will look like when the poll students next fall.
This is not just a problem for teenagers.
The U.S. surgeon general says loneliness and isolation is now a public health crisis. The results are a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. A lack of social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%.
You can read the surgeon general’s national strategy to advance social connection by clicking here.