The image displays a lonely teenage boy sitting on the curb in front of his high school, kids in emotional crisis concept.

CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey Reveals Sobering Results

The image displays a lonely teenage boy sitting on the curb in front of his high school, kids in emotional crisis concept.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released their first summary report on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. 

Containing data from 2021 as well as trends from 2011-2021, the report details possible youth risk behavior in American high school students measured across 29 variables, including: 

  • Experiences of violence and poor mental 
  • Sexual behavior 
  • Protective factors such as school connectedness and parental monitoring  
  • Social determinants of health such as unstable housing 
  • Substance use 
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors 

Key findings 

The study revealed several positive trends. Risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, and overall proportion of adolescents who reported bullying at school decreased over the timeframe of the study. However, the report highlighted many areas of deep concern. The study found that teen girls faced the highest levels of sexual violence, sadness, and hopelessness that have ever been reported to YRBS.  

  • Almost 1 in 5 teen girls experienced sexual violence in the past year.  
  • More than 1 in 10 teen girls reported they had, at some point, been forced to have sex. This is the first time researchers have seen an increase in this statistic since they began monitoring. 
  • Over 1 in 4 girls reported they seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021. This number is up significantly from 2011.  
  • More than 1 in 10 girls reported they attempted suicide in 2021, another sharp increase.  
  • The survey showed that alcohol use is also higher among girls than boys. 

More than 40% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless, they could not engage in their regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year. Though not diagnostic, this is a possible indication of depressive symptoms.  

The survey also revealed significant increases in the percentage of youth who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan, or attempted suicide. 

Notable disparities 

The study showed some disparities, including among students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, or another non-heterosexual identity (LGBQ+), or who had had any same-sex sexual partners. 

Related: Best Practices with Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Youth and Their Families, Updated 1st Edition 

The data showed that Black and Hispanic students were more likely to miss school because of safety concerns. However, Black students were less likely than most other groups to experience bullying at school. 

When surveyed about issues of sexual violence, White students were more likely than students from other racial or ethnic groups to experience sexual violence. Additionally, American Indian or Alaska Native youth were more likely than most other groups to experience forced sex. 

No racial or ethnic group was immune from the emotional trauma of the last few years. A high percentage of students in all racial and ethnic groups reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year. The survey showed increases in this area for all groups from 2011 to 2021. 

Improving adolescent mental health 

Given the amount of time adolescents spend at school, equipping the educational system to support students is a key step in combating these negative trends. As part of the study, the CDC identified several evidence-based activities that can propel students toward better mental health, including: 

  • Ensure connectedness. All students need to know that they are cared for, supported, and belong at school. Provide access to safe and trusted adults like mentors or trained teachers. Connect teens to their peers and communities through clubs and community outreach. These programs help kids know they matter and are not alone. 
  • Increase access to needed health services. This may include mental health and substance use prevention services, provided on-site or through community-based sources of care. 
  • Implement quality health education. Education must be medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, culturally and LGBTQ+ inclusive, and grounded in science. This equips teens with essential knowledge and skills, like negotiating sexual consent, managing emotions, and recognizing when they need to ask for help.