Suicidal thoughts among Wisconsin teens reach highest rate in almost two decades, survey finds

MADISON, Wis. — Teenagers don’t always like to talk about their troubles, but new data from the state is offering some insight into the mental health challenges they experience daily, making it clear they need help.

On Tuesday, officials from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction published the results of their 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey detailing the significant mental health and emotional challenges high schoolers in the state face.

YRBS data showed almost 20% of students surveyed had “seriously considered attempting suicide” in the past 12 months, the worst rates in the state since 2003. One-third of respondents reported feeling sad or hopeless almost daily for more than two weeks. That marks an all-time high in young people experiencing depression since the YRBS began in 1993.

“When I think about what is most striking about this data, it’s that it gives me a tiny bit of hope and I know that sounds odd,” said DPI communications director Abigail Swetz. “It gives me a tiny bit of hope because it is so striking that it will catch enough attention for us to realize and come together and acknowledge that this is truly a problem for our children.”

The data also showed higher rates across the board of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among females and students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Young women were twice as likely as their male peers to consider suicide and LGB students were four times for likely. In fact, according to the YRBS, one in four LGB students actually attempted to take their own lives.

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Additionally, while more than half of survey respondents reported “significant problems with anxiety,” for the LGB students that number jumps up to over 80%. Both data points mark a 3 % increase from the previous YRBS results in 2019.

“We have to pay attention to the fact for some subgroups of our students the world at large is not a very safe place,” Swetz said.

During a data briefing Tuesday, Swetz and other experts noted while that they can’t attribute these troubling trends to one issue, they believe current political events around abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic all played a role.

Experts also said a lack of access to adequate mental health care, because of staffing shortages, minimal space at mental health facilities, and long waitlists has meant the needs of young people aren’t being met.

It’s the reason Amanda Andersen with Miramont Behavioral Hospital said they’ve begun to expand their services to include care for teens. On Monday, the hospital opened the doors to its new adolescent treatment unit to admit its first patients aged 12-17.

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Andersen also said while they and other healthcare providers with limited resources are finding themselves playing catch up to try and address the mental health needs of young people, there are ways people in the community can help.

“What I see from a clinical perspective is the need in the community to really affirm what adolescents are going through and help them through their struggles,” she said. “Support of ‘I see you. I hear you. How can we help?’”

Leaders at DPI said for LGB youth, that support comes in the form of acceptance. They explained even using the preferred pronouns and names students request significantly reduce suicidality.

DPI is currently working to expand its budget to have at least one dedicated staff member focused on youth mental health for every district.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues or considering suicide, there are resources available to help. Calling 988 nationwide will connect you to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In Dane County, Journey Mental Health Center has a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline at 608-280-2600.