UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Data from the most recent Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) show an alarming percentage of Pennsylvania’s youth suffer from mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety. According to the 2019 PAYS, in which 239,340 students from 419 Pennsylvania school districts participated, 38% of all students indicated that they felt depressed or sad most days in the past 12 months.
“The mental health statistics for 10th and 12th graders are particularly concerning,” said Geoff Kolchin, program analyst for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). Approximately 1 in 5 had considered suicide in the past year, according to the survey.
The PAYS is an anonymous survey of 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grade students conducted every two years. The students report on what they think, know and believe about a wide range of risk factors such as substance use, bullying, and mental health issues — as well as protective factors such as family involvement and engagement in youth activities. Statewide and county-level survey results are available on the PCCD website, and participating school districts receive a report tailored to their local community.
Evidence-based Implementation Support (EPIS) specialists from Penn State, in partnership with state and local agencies, are dedicated to providing PAYS training and technical assistance to schools, agencies and community groups to support the well-being of Pennsylvania youth.
‘Yes, these are local problems.’
Cathy Keegan, Milton Area School District superintendent, is one of many community leaders using PAYS data to address the risks that students face.
“There is true power in using the data. We chose to look more deeply at the risk factors for depression and suicide,” Keegan explained. “We focused on the amount and nature of bullying; percentage of bullying by type; threats of acts of violent behavior on school property; access and usage of alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs; and lastly, food insecurity. Because we remained focused, we are celebrating significant progress in all of these areas.”
Keegan said that knowing the PAYS survey results led to systemic change, including the training of all instructional staff in the Question, Persuade, Refer suicide prevention program; the implementation of the Positive Action social and emotional learning curriculum; and the use of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support framework, all of which have been shown by research to be effective.
Keegan credited EPIS Systems Change Specialist Meghan Blevins with building local support for creating new systems and programs to help students with serious issues such as depression and food insecurity.
“Meghan expertly and professionally tackled tough community member questions, using the data to demonstrate that yes, these are local problems,” Keegan said.
‘We need to hear what’s going on.’
“PAYS is the way to find out what’s going on within your community and in your schools,” Kolchin said.
Kolchin expressed concerns about the use of marijuana, alcohol and vaping devices, as well as students feeling disengaged from school — especially given the stresses that youth are facing during the current pandemic.
“It’s important to keep in mind that this data is directly from our kids,” said Kolchin. “We need to hear what’s going on. It’s not just about what our kids are doing, but understanding the causes and how we can be effective with limited resources.”
PAYS is funded by PCCD, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. Rose Baker, assistant research professor at Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, supervised the 2019 PAYS survey design, administration and analyses.