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Mental health improved for NC teenagers in 2023, per survey

High school and middle school students across North Carolina reported better mental health and more physical activity in 2023 than students in those grades did in 2021. The uptick comes after nearly a decade of declines, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which shared the latest results from North Carolina’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey with the state Board of Education on Wednesday. 

“It is so encouraging to see that students are not only recovering from the effects of the pandemic, but in many cases doing better than they were in 2019 and before,” Deputy State Superintendent Michael Maher said in a news release.

The state conducts the survey every other year. It asks a representative sample of middle and high school students across North Carolina about whether they are engaging in certain risky behaviors, such as drug use. It also asks them to gauge their mental and physical health.

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In recent years, declining mental health among middle and high school students has been one of the most notable trends in the results.

However, in 2023, those students were feeling a little more hopeful. 

The percent of middle school students reporting feeling sad or hopeless declined from 35% in 2021 to 32% in 2023. And the percent of high school students feeling sad or hopeless dropped from 43% to 39%. 

Likewise, the percentage of high school students who seriously considered suicide also decreased, from 22% to 18%. That’s even a bit better than 2019, prior to the pandemic, when the rate was 19%. 

About 30% of high school students in 2023 said they felt alone in life. That’s a smaller proportion than in 2021 or 2019, but it’s still a problem, said Ellen Essick, a section chief for healthy schools and specialized instructional support for the Department of Public Instruction.

“I want you to be excited about the changes, but also realistic,” Essick told state board members. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to keep our students mentally well.” 

In her presentation, Essick used graphs to show an often inverse relationship between physical activity and feelings of sadness and hopelessness. About 42% of high school students were physically active for an hour or more on five or more days per week in 2023. That’s the highest that North Carolina high school physical activity rates have been since 2017. According to Essick, there is research suggesting that if a person is physically active, their mental state is better. 

“This information is incredibly important,” said Board of Education Vice Chairman Alan Duncan, stressing the need to maintain high levels of participation in the survey. “Our children deserve to have this voice and we deserve to have the chance to reflect that voice.” 

Anna Harden

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