Maine schoolchildren are smoking and drinking less, but they struggle increasingly with their emotional well-being and bullying, according to a health survey released Wednesday by the state education and human services agencies.
The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey was based on anonymous responses from 63,000 public school students in grades 5 through 12.
The survey has been conducted every other year since 2009 by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
High school students who reported having at least one drink of alcohol in their lifetime dropped from 59.4 percent to 54.3 percent, and those who reported smoking cigarettes at least once in the previous 30 days decreased from 15.5 percent to 12.9 percent, according to the survey.
The agencies said in a news release that accessing alcohol and drugs “was mostly deemed more difficult by students,” and that students have “increased conversations with their parents and clarity on family rules about drug and alcohol use.”
While students “largely feel more supported by parents, teachers and their communities, they also admit they are increasingly struggling with feelings of sadness and hopelessness,” the agencies said.
The survey found that 14.6 percent of high school students and 16.8 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders have “seriously considered attempting suicide,” up from 12.7 percent of high school students and 14.5 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders in 2011.
“That fact that more than one out of every 10 children in grades 7 through 12 has seriously considered suicide is alarming and brings cause for concern,” said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
“We encourage all students who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide to immediately reach out to an adult they trust who can help provide support and make connections to important resources.”
Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said, “We’re deeply concerned that youth with such incredible potential are feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless. We want to remind them that they are not alone and that our schools are filled with staff who care about them and are safe sources of support. It’s hard to ask for help on behalf of yourself or a friend, but it’s also incredibly brave.”
School climate and student bullying also continue to be concerns for state health and education officials, according to the release.
The survey found that 89 percent of fifth- and sixth-graders, 85 percent of middle-schoolers and nearly 88 percent of high-schoolers feel safe at school – about the same as 2011. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school increased from 45.4 percent to 47.2 percent among fifth- and sixth-graders, from 48.1 percent to 51.6 percent among seventh- and eighth-graders, and from 24 percent to 25.8 percent among high school students.
The state has taken some steps to help students before they harm themselves or others. In 2013, Gov. Paul LePage signed a law requiring all school staffers to participate in suicide prevention training and donated $44,000 from his contingency fund to support expanded training in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, DHHS and DOE.
Maine’s education department recently hired a new student assistance coordinator to lead the state’s bullying prevention efforts and launched expanded resources on its website at www.maine.gov/doe/bullying. DHHS also has suicide prevention resources for students, families and schools at www.maine.gov/suicide, and people in crisis are encouraged to call (888) 568-1112.
The departments use the survey results to help plan and seek funding for education and prevention programs, the agencies said.
The state also surveys parents of students in kindergarten through Grade 3, but those results are not publicly available because of a low response rate.