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Healthy Kids: Mental Health

This interactive dashboard and analysis explore mental health among Colorado's high schoolers using data from the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.
Published: August 31, 2016 | Updated: May 3, 2017

Nearly one of three Colorado high school students (29.5 percent) feel so sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row that they stop doing their usual activities, a common symptom of depression. That’s up from less than 25 percent in 2013, according to newly released data from the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

CHI analyzed the results of the survey to better understand how Colorado’s high school students are faring when it comes to mental health. The findings described in this analysis demonstrate that mental health weighs heavily on Colorado’s youth.

Overall, poor mental health is on the increase, with some students in some groups struggling more than others.

  • Sexual Orientation:  About 46 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) students say they seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, more than three times the rate of heterosexual students (13.8 percent).
  • Gender:  Two of five female students reported symptoms of depression. That’s more than twice the rate of male students (19.2 percent).
  • Race/Ethnicity:  Almost 15 percent of multiracial students reported attempting suicide. In comparison, white students were less than half as likely to attempt suicide at 6.9 percent.

Methodology

This report about mental health among Colorado’s high schools is the second in a series by the Colorado Health Institute (CHI) delving into findings from the survey, which collects health information every other year from Colorado public school students. About 16,000 high school students took the 2015 survey.

The results are tabulated on a statewide basis as well as by demographic characteristics. The data are also broken out regionally based on the 21 health statistics regions (HSRs) created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. Larger counties make up their own HSRs while smaller counties are grouped together. CHI’s analysis of the mental health data focuses on demographic breakdowns, rather than on geographic variations, because many HSR sample sizes were too small to determine whether differences were statistically significant.

The 2015 survey lacks data from four large counties – Weld, Douglas, Jefferson and El Paso. Douglas County did not participate in the survey.  Participation was so low in Weld, Jefferson and El Paso counties that the data could not be broken out individually, but it is included in the statewide findings. 

Each of CHI’s Healthy Kids Colorado briefs is accompanied by a data dashboard (above) allowing users to interact with the data and focus on specific regions.

Feeling Sad and Hopeless

The percentage of students who reported symptoms of depression increased by about five percentage points to 29.5 percent in 2015 from 24.3 percent in 2013.  This increase stands out compared with the national rate, which stayed the same between 2013 and 2015 at 29.9 percent.

The statewide average hides troubling differences among certain students. A majority of LGB students (61.3 percent) report feeling depressed, compared with 25.3 percent of heterosexual students.

High school girls report much higher rates of depression (40 percent) than boys (20 percent).

There are significant differences between racial/ethnic demographics, too. Nearly half (46.5 percent) of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students report feeling depressed. This compares with 28 percent of white students, 30.8 percent of black students and 36.6 percent of multiracial students. 

Suicide

The proportion of Colorado students seriously considering suicide is similar to the national average —17.4 percent in Colorado compared with17.7 percent nationally. However, Colorado’s rate increased from 14.5 percent in 2013 while the national average only increased slightly from 17.0 percent.

The same types of students who are likely to experience symptoms of depression report having serious thoughts about suicide. At 46.3 percent, Colorado’s LGB high school students are more than three times as likely as their heterosexual peers (13.8 percent) to have seriously considered committing suicide in the past year.

Females struggle more with suicidal thoughts than males. Almost one of four female students (22.9 percent) have seriously considered suicide in the past year, compared with 12 percent of male students.

Black students are least likely to consider suicide (11.2 percent), while multiracial students (22.4 percent) and Native Hawaiian students (23 percent) are most likely to consider suicide.

Nearly eight percent of all Colorado high schoolers – 1,095 students – attempted suicide at least once in the past 12 months. That’s lower than the national average of 8.6 percent, but still an increase from the state average of 6.6 percent in 2013.

Not surprisingly, students more likely to seriously consider suicide also have higher rates of suicide attempts. One in four (25.4 percent) of LGB students attempted suicide, compared with 5.6 percent of heterosexual students. And at 11 percent, female students were almost three times as likely as their male classmates to have attempted to commit suicide (4.4 percent).

Following this same pattern, about 15 percent of multiracial students attempted suicide. That’s more than twice the rate of white students (6.9 percent) and black students (5.6 percent). Data are not available on suicide attempts among Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students due to sample size.

Trusted Adults

Nearly three of four (71.3) percent of Colorado high schoolers have an adult to go to for help with a serious problem. The types of students who felt they could turn to an adult for help were the same types who were least likely to report depression or suicidal thoughts.  

Only 60.3 percent of LGB students and 48.8 percent of students who were unsure of their sexual orientation report having a trusted adult while 73.9 percent of heterosexual students have an adult to go to with a serious problem.

Slightly more male students (73.5 percent) report having a trusted adult than females (69.1 percent).

Three of four white students (74.4 percent) feel they can count on an adult, compared with 65.6 percent of Hispanic students and 68.2 percent of multiracial students.

Data from the Healthy Kids Survey shows that having a trusted adult makes a big difference in the mental health and wellbeing of students—those who do are 3.5 times less likely to attempt suicide.

Health Care Providers

Health care providers are increasingly discussing strategies to cope with anxiety and sadness among teens — a positive development.

More than one of five students (22.9 percent) said they talked with their doctor or nurse about how to deal with feeling sad or hopeless during their last checkup. That’s up from 19 percent in 2013 and likely a result of a statewide focus on increased mental health screening in primary care settings.

Conclusion

There is more work to be done in supporting good mental health among all Colorado youth, but especially among LGB, female and multiracial students, who are most impacted by mental health issues.

Trusted adults, teachers and health care providers are important resources for students, as shown in the data, but mental health is a community-wide issue, not one that can be solved just in the classroom or in a doctor’s office.

Each Coloradan has a role to play in making sure that Colorado kids feel supported in all parts of their lives by generating an open dialogue about the importance of mental health.