CDC spotlights teen struggles with mental health and importance of school support

Written by: Leslie Colwell
Date Posted: March 10, 2023

In 2021, nearly three out of every five teenage girls in the country reported that they felt persistently sad or hopeless for weeks in a row, and one in three teenage girls seriously considered suicide. These are just two troubling findings in a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Across multiple measures included in the report, girls fared worse than boys. Girls reported higher rates of alcohol and drug use than boys, and experienced bullying and sexual violence at higher rates. Almost 15% of teen girls said they were forced to have sex, an increase of 27% over two years. Thirteen percent had attempted suicide in the past year, compared with 7% of boys. 

The CDC’s analysis is based on data collected in fall 2021 from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), taken by a nationally representative sample of more than 17,000 students in public and private high schools. The report includes 2021 data, the first national data collected since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as 10-year trends from 2011 through 2021. Similar to Colorado’s state-level Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, students responded to questions about their sexual behavior, substance use, experiences of violence, and mental health.  

Mental health concerns were especially prominent among lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning students, with nearly 70% reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared to 35% of students who identified as heterosexual. Twenty-two percent had attempted suicide during the past year. These findings mirror 2021 Colorado-specific data about LGBTQ+ students recently released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The national YRBS survey did not include questions about gender identity, so the analysis does not include transgender students. 

The report also highlighted some positive findings, like students reporting less alcohol and drug use and sexual activity.  

In 2021, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency for youth mental health as youth navigated social isolation, increased levels of family stress, and major disruptions to typical routines. As students and families recover from the compounding losses spurred by the pandemic, the CDC directs attention to the importance of schools in providing protective factors for kids through access to mental health services, gay-straight alliances, high-quality health education, and enforcement of anti-harassment policies. Data show that safe and supportive school environments encourage positive youth development and foster connectedness. Youth who feel connected to adults who care at school are less likely to experience negative health outcomes.  

Colorado is taking action to improve young people’s mental health and well-being. Since 2021, the Children’s Campaign has convened the School Climate Coalition, a cross-sector group of more than 70 K-12, health, and youth-serving partners committed to creating positive learning environments for all kids. We support efforts to bolster mental health support for students in schools, such as HB23-1003, which would expand universal mental health screening in schools and connect youth to resources. In 2022, the state expanded investments in the School Health Professional Grant Program, school-based health centers, and the “I Matter” program, which provides up to six free therapy sessions for young people in Colorado and reimburses participating licensed therapists. 

Read the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021 or visit our Youth Mental and Behavioral Health page. If you are interested in learning more about the School Climate Coalition, contact Megan Ives, Senior Policy Analyst, at 

Leslie Colwell

About Leslie Colwell

Leslie Colwell serves as the Vice President of K-12 Education Initiatives, leading the Campaign’s work to improve education in the state of Colorado. Before joining the Children’s Campaign in August of 2014, Leslie worked to facilitate partnerships and produce policy agreements, especially in the area of education as an Associate at the Keystone Center. Her professional experience includes working as Legislative Director for State Senator Mike Johnston, managing his education policy portfolio (including his office’s work on HB12-1238, Colorado’s READ Act, and SB13-033, ASSET), and directing a policy fellowship for educators for three summers. Leslie has also worked on Teach For America’s alumni team, and before that taught 6th grade Math and Earth Science as a TFA corps member at Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles. She currently serves on the board of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy & Research Organization (CLLARO) and on the steering committee of the Colorado Afterschool Partnership.