High school students are not sleeping enough and the number of teenage girls reporting mental health issues is increasing according to a recent survey.
The 2013 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, a study of 30,000 students across the province, was released in the first of a series of reports by the McCreary Centre Society last week.
Students from Grade 7 to 12 in 56 school districts, including 17 local classrooms, completed the survey titled “From Hastings Street to Haida Gwaii,” between February and June last year.
This is the fifth time the survey has been conducted since 1992, with the 2013 study focusing 130 questions related to physical and mental health to risky and protective behaviours.
For the first time, students were asked how many hours of sleep they had the night before the survey.
“The sleep questions are really important because it correlates with mental health,” explained Annie Smith, executive director for the McCreary Centre, a non-profit society based in Vancouver.
The study showed that only 29 per cent of youth (28 per cent of girls and 31 per cent of boys) reported eight hours of sleep before taking the hour-long survey, with over 80 per cent of respondents admitting to staying up on the phone or online when they were supposed to be asleep.
Additionally, six per cent of youth in Grade 12 reported sleeping four hours or less the night before the survey, compared to two percent in Grade 7.
Students in every grade who slept nine hours or more before completing the survey were more likely than students who got less sleep to report that their mental health was good or excellent.
“This is an area of concern because we looked at every single grade and the overall trend was a lack of sleep and the link to poorer mental health,” Smith added.
While the study showed youth are generally making better choices about risk behaviours such as binge drinking and smoking than their peers five or ten years ago, responses about mental health were troubling, especially among female students.
“The gender differences in mental health is concerning,” explained Smith. “The survey shows it is not improving for girls,” she said. “And in some cases, it is getting worse.”
The survey found that 17 per cent of females students reported suicidal ideation, up from 14 per cent in 2008, and similarly, the rate of suicide attempts reported in 2013 increased over the past five years.
Of the male students surveyed, eight per cent reported suicidal thoughts, a slight drop since 2008, which corresponds to the reported rate of suicide attempts remaining unchanged in five years.
Further studies of those results will be completed this year, and specific reports focused on the health of various youth populations will be released to the school districts and healthcare services.
“The survey provides information to help us understand our students,” confirmed Greg Luterbach, superintendent for School District 20. “It provides reliable, accurate information about youth health,” he continued. “And provides a reliable source to track trends over the past 20 years.”
Although the survey found female students were three times as likely as males to report a mental or emotional health condition (15 per cent compared to five per cent) in the past year, many of those teens did not seek mental health intervention.
The most common reason students cited for failing to seek medical help for symptoms of depression, anxiety and panic attacks, was they didn’t want their parent to know.
This is alarming because the study shows students aged 14 and older were more likely in 2013 than in 2008 to experience extreme levels of despair to the point where they could not function.
And, for 8 per cent of males and 22 per cent of females surveyed, those feelings led to self-harm such as cutting or injuring themselves on purpose.
“We use the data to help shape programs and supports for our students often in collaboration with community partners,” added Luterbach.
Most of the survey results were consistent across the province, but the study did uncover some disparities between the urban and rural student experience.
“One thing we found is that more girls in rural communities tend not to participate in sports,” said Smith. “The reason they gave is that they were worried about being bullied,” she explained. “It is something they can’t get away from in school, on the bus or in a sports activity like you could in a bigger centre. That is a notable difference in the rural areas.”
Two other points of concern Smith touched on during an interview with the Trail Times, were the marked increases in reported multiple concussions (blows to the head); and the growing problem of childhood obesity.
The percentage of youth injured enough to require medical attention declined from previous survey years, however, 57 per cent of those injuries occurred playing or training for sports or during other recreational activities including walking and running outside.
“First of all, one in six kids had a concussion and most reported more than one,” she said. “That is stunning to me,” Smith continued. “This means the message isn’t getting out there to parents that kids need to wear helmets especially if they are skateboarding or biking.”
Meanwhile, the survey shows a 39 per cent decrease in binge drinking, a 26 per cent decrease in marijuana use and fewer sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.
However, those health gains are counterbalanced by the record number of obese youth noted in the 2013 survey compared to the last 22 years, and only 17 per cent of students aged 12 to 17 meeting the Canadian guidelines of an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
“There is a decrease in percentage of kids at a healthy weight for sure,” said Smith. “And a rise in kids who are obese.”
According to the body mass index (BMI),a measure of body fat based on height and weight, younger students were more likely to be obese compared to older students, (eight per cent in Grade 7 and six per cent in Grade 12); and youth living in the north were most likely to be 20 per cent overweight and 11 per cent obese.
Overall, the survey found that taking BMI into account, 15 per cent of students were overweight and six per cent were obese.