By Claire McNeill
cmcneill@charlotteobserver.com
Originally published by The Observer: Saturday, Jul. 07, 2012

Depression and suicidal thoughts may be more widespread among Charlotte-Mecklenburg students than parents realize, with nearly 25 percent of middle-schoolers reporting that they seriously considered suicide in the previous year, according to a new local survey of risky youth behaviors.

The survey also found that 30 percent of high school students reported long-lasting feelings of hopelessness and extreme sadness that affected normal routines.

For high school women, that number was even higher – nearly 37 percent.

Additional findings from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Risk Behavior Survey:

• Relationship violence increased, as 14 percent of high school students reported being physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend in 2011, up from about 11 percent in 2007. Reports of rape also increased. Ten percent of respondents reported being physically forced to have intercourse against their will, up from 7 percent in 2009.

• About 7 in 10 high-schoolers reported having had an alcoholic drink at least once. Though binge drinking decreased slightly between 2007 and 2009, that number is up again. About 16 percent of high school students said they had had more than five consecutive drinks in the previous month.

• Fifty percent of high-schoolers say they are virgins, compared with about 80 percent of middle-schoolers. Almost 20 percent of high-schoolers have had sex with more than four people, and about 9 percent had sex for the first time before age 13.

• Half of high school seniors said they had juggled texting and driving in the previous month.

Complete results:
High school
Middle school

Those findings come from the latest local Youth Risk Behavior Survey, part of a national survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every two years, health officials poll students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools about drugs, violence and more – the kinds of issues that keep parents of teenagers awake at night.

The latest survey, conducted in 2011, was the fourth for high-schoolers and the third for middle-schoolers, who take a more limited version.

CMS results paralleled national and North Carolina results in most areas. The survey polled 1,591 Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle school students and 1,555 high school students.

Though some positive results emerged – for example, cigarette use remains low – CMS survey results showed some troubling trends related to mental health.

The nearly 25 percent of middle-schoolers who reported considering suicide was up from 18 percent in 2007.

One in nine said they actually attempted to kill themselves.

Reported suicide attempts were up slightly for high school students, too, to 15 percent from about 13 percent in 2007.

UNC Chapel Hill’s Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor, says the results are consistent with other research.

By the time girls hit their 20s, he said, one in four has gone through a major depressive episode.

“The more people understand how common it is in our society for adolescents, especially adolescent girls, to go through those things, the easier it might be for those people to get help,” he said. “Such a tiny percentage of people who need treatment get it, and people just don’t talk about it.”

The causes of depression are wide-ranging, but many factors – neighborhood violence, family troubles, social pressures, economic problems – can play a role.

“Kids are growing up earlier, and girls grow up a little earlier than boys do,” he said. “Society starts to treat them a little differently in terms of their expectations… but that doesn’t mean they’re cognitively or socially ready for those demands.”

Mary Rosen, a rising senior at Providence High School, isn’t surprised that more than a third of high school girls report feeling hopeless or extremely sad.

“I’ve felt that way before, and I have friends who’ve felt that way before, but we just wouldn’t categorize it as depression,” she said. “It feels like it’s just part of being a high-schooler and being a teenager.”

In a new question for 2011, almost 19 percent of high-schoolers reported doing something to purposely hurt themselves without wanting to die.

“Kids are dealing with negative feelings and trying to stop the negative feelings by dealing with this behavior,” Prinstein said. Self-harm “may help people get more focused and calm and let them see clearly again.”

Engagement in self-harming activities is a clear predictor of later suicidal behavior, he said.

Reports of bullying high

Bullying and harassment continue to be widespread, the survey found, with more than half of high-schoolers describing them as problems at their institution.

In middle schools, that number was even higher, reaching 62 percent.

Both of those numbers have risen about 10 percent since 2007.

More middle school students – 45 percent, up from 26 percent in 2007 – also reported being bullied on school property than in past years.

And in a new question for 2011, 12 percent of high-schoolers and 16 percent of middle-schoolers said they’ve been bullied because someone thought they were gay or lesbian.

Rosen said she was surprised that the bullying statistics weren’t higher.

“At my school it’s not so much an overt problem, but it’s something people do and think is OK,” she said. “It’s not the bullying you see in movies, where someone pushes you up against a locker and says, ‘I want your lunch money!’ It’s more a bunch of guys making fun of each other if they’re too feminine.”

Nancy Langenfeld, coordinated school health specialist for CMS, said some bullying statistics may have increased because of increased education and prevention efforts.

“Oftentimes when you talk about an issue and you make it more comfortable, you hear more reports,” she said. “Before, no one talked about it. It was a hidden issue.”

About 60 percent of middle school students report having been in a physical fight within the last year, almost double the high school rate of 32 percent. Those numbers have remained steady in the last few years.

Quentin Blair, a rising junior at West Charlotte High School, said bullying happens, but someone usually stops the problem before it escalates.

“It’s a problem, but really I haven’t seen as much of it as I have in the past,” he said, adding that fighting was more common in middle school.

Marijuana use is prevalent

The use of marijuana in high school has become almost as common as drinking, and students reported a casual attitude toward the drug, the survey shows.

“I sort of strained to find in my mind people I know who either have not or would not try it once,” Rosen said. “It’s high school. It’s not one of the worst things you can do for yourself. It’s not like you’re texting and driving or drinking and driving.”

Use of the drug has jumped 12 percent since 2007.

This year, 48 percent of high-schoolers said they’ve tried it at least once.

In middle school, 12 percent of students report having tried marijuana, a number that hasn’t changed much in the last few years.

Libby Safrit, executive director of Charlotte’s Teen Health Connection, worries about teenagers’ casual attitudes toward the drug.

Today’s marijuana is much more potent than it was several decades ago, she said.

And students who use it often lose motivation, she said.

“When we say marijuana we have a tendency to be dismissive,” she said, “and it’s nothing to be dismissive about.”

Safrit said the report should encourage more parents to have meaningful talks with their children.

“People say, ‘Well, if I talk to my daughter or son about birth control, they’re going to think I’m giving them permission.’ No, they’re not,” she said. “Just keep consistent with your family values. You have to engage and have a relationship.”

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