New survey finds Minnesota students feel less safe, less healthy

Fire doors with locks and magnets can swing shut to create barriers.
The Minnesota Student Survey checks in every three years. Some of its findings this year are disturbing.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

A new statewide survey shows declines in how students feel about their mental and emotional well-being, as well as declines in how safe and engaged they feel at school.

The Minnesota Student Survey is a series of questions given to the state's fifth, eighth, ninth and 11th graders every three years. It asks about school climate, emotional health, bullying, out-of-school activities and other topics.

This year's survey finds that Minnesota students describe themselves as feeling less safe and less engaged at school, as well as less healthy emotionally and physically.

Minnesota's education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker, said she is concerned about data from the survey that shows increased student vaping and declines in mental health.

"Our students are talking to us and we must listen,” she said. “We must make sure that they feel supported, safe and welcomed when they're in the classroom so they can succeed academically."

Only 65 percent of student respondents said they had excellent or very good health. That's down from 69 percent three years ago.

One in four Minnesota 11th graders said they used an e-cigarette in the past month — an increase of more than 54 percent from 2016.

Minnesota has seen several vaping-related deaths, and Gov. Tim Walz has said he's directed state officials to focus on preventing vaping in schools and among young people.

Ricker said she wants to start addressing the rise in e-cigarette use by educating students about the dangers of vaping.

"Students also don't know it's dangerous right now,” she said. “The number of students who reported that they don't know that vaping is dangerous is really the first place to start.”

But physical health is only one of several troubling topics. According to the survey, female students are almost twice as likely as male students to say they have problems with mental or emotional health.

Although rates have increased for all students, the number of ninth-grade female students who report long-term mental or emotional health issues has increased the most. It's nearly doubled in six years. This year, nearly 30 percent of ninth-grade female students said they had long-term mental or emotional health issues.

And reports of suicide ideation have also increased for all Minnesota students. This year, nearly 1 in 4 11th-grade students say they've seriously considered suicide at some point, and nearly 1 in 10 have attempted it.

LGBTQ students are three times as likely to say they’ve seriously considered suicide and four times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual students.

Denise Specht, president of the state teacher's union, Education Minnesota, said teachers have increasingly been requesting help and training to address mental health problems in their classrooms.

"Educators are finding that our students that are coming into our work sites are coming with a lot of unmet mental health needs,” she said. “They've faced a lot of trauma. And so educators are looking for what kinds of things can we do, or should we be looking for, to be the best educators we can be."

Ursula Becker, a high school English teacher in St. Paul, said she's seen an increase in mental health issues in her classroom. Sometimes, it shows up in students’ acting out. Other times, it manifests differently:

"There are kids who kind of just fade away,” she said. “And I think also kids don't always have the tools to know how to talk about it, to manage it. We just don't have enough consistent training on mental health."

Rising rates of mental health problems and suicide ideation are not limited to Minnesota. A recent national survey from the CDC found that suicide rates for people aged 10-24 increased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017. For the youngest of that group — youth ages 10 to 4 — the suicide rate has almost tripled.

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