New report shows Utah teen mental health issues are on the rise

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) – Teen mental health issues are on the rise, according to a new report released by the Utah Department of Health.

The report, released at the beginning of October, is comprised of data from School Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) surveys conducted every odd-numbered year in public schools throughout the state. With parental consent, students ranging from 6th to 12th grade are asked about chronic conditions, lifestyles, mental health, substance abuse, violence, and injury.

Key findings from the report show significant increase between 2013 to 2017 among adolescents reporting:

  • Feeling sad or hopeless (20.8% to 27.3%)
  • Feeling suicide ideation (14.1% to 18.1%)
  • Making a suicide plan (10.8% to 14.3%)
  • Making one or more suicide attempt (6.2% to 7.7%)

Celina Milner, who is a mother to a 16-year-old and 18-year-old told ABC 4 News she wasn’t surprised with these findings.

“It may not have shocked me, but it still saddens me,” said Milner. “It’s almost as if from 13 to 17 years old, they go through a dark forest. There’s kind of a fog that settles on them and it’s something they have to navigate on their own.”

So the big question is…what’s causing this increase? Dr. Christy Kane, who is a licensed clinical mental health counselor said there’s no definite answer. But there’s a couple contributing factors.

“One, access. We are much better now talking about mental health and taking away the stigma that comes with mental health than we’ve ever been before,” said Dr. Kane. “I think our kids are more aware of services than generations in the past and they’re realizing that to walk into a mental health counseling office is not something they should be ashamed of.”

The other reason, she said, is because of an increased use in electronics and digital devices. Dr. Kane explained that adolescents are not getting as much neurotransmitter oxytocin as past generations from physical contact.

“If you look at research from the Center of Disease Control, it indicates that our young people today spend less time in the normal contacting process than of generations in the past and they spent more time isolated and on electronic screens,” said Dr. Kane. “We’re looking at a change in our fundamental core as humans where we don’t socialize the way we used to, we don’t connect the way we used to.”

“Beginning in 2012, a lot of parents like myself bought smartphones for our children because the prices were going down. But that’s almost like giving them keys to the car without them knowing how to navigate through all of this because there’s so much within this digital parenting that is very foreign to us,” said Milner. “Kids are digital natives, they have grown up with devices. Parents are digital immigrants, we are learning this and we have a steep learning curve.”

So what can parents do? Dr. Kane recommends having open and honest communication with your children that it’s okay to talk to you if they have anxiety or depression.

Next, parents need to set boundaries or limits on their children’s digital use.

“We need to do more stop processes. Newspapers have an end. But electronics create an endless feed with no disruption. Parents need to create disruption in their lives where electronics get put away,” said Dr. Kane. “I encourage families to have a couple hours a day where there’s no electronics or a meal time when there’s no electronics so the kids can engage in those social, stabilizing activities which are beneficial to the brain.”

Milner said she follows the 3 M’s: 

  • Manage your children’s devices
  • Monitor their activity on the devices
  • Model the behavior you want your kids to follow

It’s important to note that digital use is not entirely a negative thing. The key is to find a healthy medium.

“I don’t see technology as bad. It’s nothing that we should be afraid of. But I think there’s a way that we can incorporate that into checking in with our kids,” said Milner.

“What we need is to educate families and everybody else is balance. You’re not going to get all the kids to throw their smartphones away. But you can help our kids understand that maybe an hour of being with your families can make the world of difference. Heck, I tell parents the best thing in the world is 8 hugs a day for 8 seconds for every member of the family,” said Dr. Kane.

To view the full Utah Adolescent Health Report, click here.

For more tips on how to nurture your child’s mental health behavior, visit OffSmarter.

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