New Survey of High School Students Reveals Frightening Trend
S. E. Williams
When the California Department of Health Care Services released results of its latest Children’s Health Survey last week, it once again elevated a potential crisis that impacts all demographics in the state.
According to the report, feelings of incapacitating, chronic sadness or hopelessness were reported by 26 percent of 7th graders, 32 percent of 9th graders, and 34 percent of 11th graders. In addition, almost one-fifth of the high school students surveyed admitted they had at some point, contemplated suicide.
Several schools in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties participated in the statewide survey. They included Desert Sands Unified and La Quinta High School in Riverside County; and, Chaffey Joint Union High, Los Osos High, San Bernardino City Unified, San Bernardino High, Victor Valley Union High and Silverado High Schools in San Bernardino.
Among participating girls, these concerns were further exacerbated. According to the report, females experienced a significantly higher prevalence of chronic sadness than males. Seventh grade girls were 1.8 times more likely to report it (32 percent vs. 19 percent); ninth grade girls were twice as likely to experience such feelings (42 percent vs. 21 percent); and, eleventh grade females were 1.6 times as likely (42 percent vs. 26 percent). Although numbers were provided by ethnicity for total survey participants, a breakdown by ethnicity was not provided for this section of the published report, nor did the report separate the information by geographic area or participating schools.
The survey asked the children a number of questions that included whether they felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more; and, whether those feelings stopped them from doing their usual activities— obvious symptoms of depression.
The report underscored the need for educators, prevention specialists, youth service providers, and health agencies to collaboratively focus more attention on better meeting the needs of California’s youth and helping them thrive in school, career, and life.
The California state legislature is currently considering a bill that would make it mandatory for school districts across the state to adopt policies aimed at preventing student suicide.
Community Connect offers a confidential 24/7 Suicide, Crisis Intervention hotline service for residents of the inland region for support dial (951) 686-4357.
When commenting on the value of the latest California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote, “The California Healthy Kids Survey, provide[s] a venue for students to express how they really feel about their school experience and their classroom environment.” He continued, “These surveys provide teachers and administrators the critical data needed to create positive learning environments in our schools.”
CHKS has been conducted every two years since 1985 under the stewardship of the California Department of Health Care Services, with support from the California Department of Education, Coordinated School Health and Safety Office. Survey responses are both anonymous and confidential.
The survey questionnaires are completed by seventh, ninth and eleventh graders in a number of public schools around the state. The current report contained responses from approximately 36,500 students surveyed from fall 2013 through spring 2015.
In addition to findings related to depression and feelings related to potential suicide that sadly, showed little change at disturbingly high levels, the report highlighted a number of other critical concerns. The survey found only four-in-ten high school students felt highly connected to their schools, and just over half of 7th graders, about the same as found in 2011-2013.
The percentages are even lower for being highly motivated academically—only 38 percent of those in the 7th grade and 25 percent of eleventh graders reported such feelings.
Sadly, only 16 to 21 percent of secondary students said they felt very safe at school while only about six in ten reported feeling safe or very safe—this represented little changed from two years ago.
The number of students who reported being harassed or bullied at school remained stable for seventh graders at 40 percent; but, increased by about three percentage points for ninth and eleventh grade students to 38 percent and 31 percent respectively.
Other findings included the reality that one-third of 11th graders reported they had tried an e-cigarette; students were three times as likely to try an e-cigar than smoke a cigarette in 7th grade and, one-and-a- half to two times more likely to do so in high school.
Finally, despite improvements in substance use, the report highlighted another concerning reality—about twenty percent of 11th graders reported being involved in drinking and driving while either very drunk or high on drugs at least seven or more times; and, admitted to being either current drug users, current binge drinkers and/or reported being drunk or high on school property at least once.
The report conceded that many of the survey variables are inter-related. For example, substance use and poor mental health are significant barriers to learning, while feelings of being connect to one’s school is related to better health and academic outcomes. This illustrates the importance of breaking down barriers that have separated education, prevention, and health programs in the past and elevates the need for more cross-agency collaboration.
In its assessment of findings, the report proposed one key factor that may account for some of the more negative survey results. It determined only 26 to 33 percent of secondary students experienced in their schools, the kind of high level support in three fundamental areas that have been clearly linked to resilience and positive academic, social, emotional, and physical health outcomes. Those factors include caring adult relationships, high expectations, and meaningful participation.
The report focused on the need for all youth-serving agencies to work together to better provide these developmental supports young people need to succeed. This is considered especially critical for youth in low-income communities who historically lack other support and resources as well.
The report also identified some positive indicators. There was a marked decrease among the percent of eleventh graders involved in heavy drinking and/or drug use, including such use on school property. The report also revealed the availability of alcohol and marijuana had declined while the perceived harm of these substances increased. There was also a decline in all grades in the number of students who reported seeing someone carrying a weapon on school property. Finally, the percent of students who reported participation in a physical fight decreased as did those physically victimized.
The 2013-2015 sample included slightly more Hispanic/Latino respondents and notably more Whites than two years ago. It is also important to note participation by school districts, schools, and students was voluntary, and parental consent was required.
CHKS is the largest statewide survey of resiliency, protective factors, and risk behaviors in the nation. Over the years, it has led to a better understanding of the relationship between students’ health behaviors and academic performance. It is frequently cited by state policymakers and the media as a critical component of school improvement efforts that can help guide the development of more effective health, prevention, and youth development programs. The report can also be customized to meet local needs, interests, and standards. Most importantly, it provides a vehicle to confidentially obtain data on student knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions. To view the report in its entirety, visit http://chks.wested.org/.