Mental Health Concerns Increase while Substance Use Declines for Utah Adolescents

New report shows impact of pandemic on students’ daily lives

Salt Lake City—Students’ daily lives and learning were profoundly impacted during the pandemic, according to a report released today by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Utah State Board of Education with mental health concerns for Utah adolescents continuing to increase, while substance use declined.

The report findings come from the Prevention Needs Assessment (PNA) survey, given to a random sample of students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 in the spring of odd calendar years. Active parental consent is required to participate. The survey includes questions on chronic conditions (asthma, diabetes), lifestyle (physical activity, obesity, and family meals), mental health (feeling sad or hopeless, psychological distress, social isolation, and suicide), substance use (alcohol use, marijuana, prescription drug abuse, and tobacco use), violence and injury (motor vehicle safety, bullying, and dating violence), and COVID-19. The PNA survey is one of two surveys included in the School Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey.

Report highlights include:

  • Since 2013, the percentage of students feeling sad or hopeless has steadily increased. Female students reported more mental health concerns (including feeling sad or hopeless, psychological distress, social isolation, self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicide plans, and suicide attempts) than male students.
  • Substance use (including binge drinking, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and marijuana use) decreased in 2021. Although data from this survey show a significant decrease in vape product use since 2019 (12.4%), vape products remain the most common source of nicotine addiction among Utah students.
  • 57.9% of students regularly ate meals with their family.
  • Only 16.8% of students met the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for physical activity (60 or more minutes per day).
  • 66.5% of students reported they always wore a seatbelt. However, distracted driving continues to be a risk factor for youth with 53.9% of students reporting they talked on a cell phone while driving and 36.3% reporting they text and drive.
  • 29.0% of students reported getting sick with COVID-19 or symptoms of the virus. This is more than three times the known positive test rate (7.8%) for this age group in Utah as of May 31, 2021.
  • 91.5% of students reported they participated in online learning during the 2020-2021 school year and 70.5% of students reported they missed spending time in-person at school learning with other students.

“These surveys are critical tools to help school administrators, teachers, and public health professionals identify health and safety needs of Utah students and take steps toward protecting and improving adolescent health,” commented Michael Friedrichs, deputy state epidemiologist with the DHHS. “Without this data, we wouldn’t be able to identify trends in risk behaviors or evaluate the success of programs that increase protective factors.”

Comparisons over time, by local health district, grade, and sex, are presented in tables, graphs, and maps to help show the percentage of Utah students who are affected by different health issues and where problems are concentrated in the state.

To download a copy of the 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report, visit

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