Colleen Hannum, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Social Services, presents findings to the state Behavioral Health Advisory Council at the Human Services Center in Yankton on Aug. 9, 2023. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
YANKTON — South Dakota high school students are suffering increased mental health problems, according to a presentation heard Wednesday by the state’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council at the Human Services Center.
Colleen Hannum, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Social Services, presented numerous data points to the board as part of an update.
The data show a growing number of South Dakota students expressing prolonged feelings of sadness. In 2013, 22% of high school students reported feeling “sad almost every day for two or more weeks in a row to the extent that they ceased some of their usual activities.” By 2019, the most recent year of data for the indicator, the number had climbed to 35.7% – nearly catching up with the national average of 36.7%.
Female students were 1.7 times more likely to feel sad or hopeless than males, and Native American students were nearly two times more likely than white students. The rate among Native American students was 55.6%, and the rate among white students was 30.9%.
High school and suicide
On suicide, Hannum said, “we were higher for all our measures” than the national average. The survey data showed the number of South Dakota high schoolers suffering a serious injury from an attempted suicide grew by 100% between 2009 and 2019. The state had the second-highest suicide rate in the U.S. for teens ages 15 to 19 from 2018 to 2020, according to data in Hannum’s presentation.
In 2019, 23% of South Dakota high schoolers “seriously considered suicide,” 19% planned an attempt, and 12% made an attempt (compared to a 9% national average).
Among Native American students, 31% attempted suicide and 10% were seriously injured in an attempt. For white students, those numbers were 8% and 3%, respectively.
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The U.S. surgeon general and others say the rise in youth mental health challenges can be traced to multiple causes, including increased screen time that can result in less sleep, sedentary living, diminishing social ties and a sense of inadequacy or hopelessness.
Tiffany Wolfgang, who runs the Department of Social Services’ Division of Behavioral Health Services, said heightened awareness and reporting are also contributing to the rising numbers.
“Sometimes that ‘why’ is just so hard to capture and grab,” Wolfgang said in response to questions from council members about what’s driving the changes.
“We get so caught up in looking at the numbers and the data, and we tend to focus on the ‘doomsday’ of what that information is telling us, but we also see some good things happening as well,” she said. “But we very rarely focus on that, and that’s OK, because we should be striving to address the areas we’re not doing so well at.”
The broader presentation included numbers on the behavioral health indicators of South Dakotans of all ages. Among other data, adult binge drinking in the state decreased from 2011 to 2021. And as of 2019, the number of adults with a substance abuse disorder was lower.
The Behavioral Health Advisory Council advises the state’s Division of Behavioral Health with planning, and evaluates and recommends services. Some members have experienced behavioral health problems themselves or have cared for someone who does.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available anytime by dialing 988. The service is free and confidential.2023-SEOW-Executive-Summary
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