Florida drops teen health and mental health inquiry at ‘worst time’, pediatrics expert says

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Florida teens will no longer be asked if they’ve fought, used drugs or felt hopeless in a biennial Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

Earlier this month, the state chose to end its participation in the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The questionnaire had been distributed to thousands of teenagers in Florida since 1991.

“This is the worst time you could choose to do this,” said Dr. Mobeen Rathore, associate chair of the UF-Jacksonville Department of Pediatrics and former president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This comes at a time when having this kind of data is more important than ever for the health and well-being of our young people.”

It is a voluntary, anonymous survey asking middle and high school students about a variety of behaviors, including drug and alcohol use, sex, diet, physical and mental health. There were over 100 questions in the 2019 survey.

Teens are asked if they text while driving, vaping and sunbathing indoors.

“I think these (surveys) allow us to come up with augmentation allocations towards services and for mental health, well-being, physical well-being, preventive services,” Rathore said.

The survey analyzes data in several ways, such as race and rank. It also offers data based on a teenager’s sexual orientation, including an option for those answering questions – “not sure”.

“I think one of the things this program does is educate us about the services and the challenges that LGBTQ youth face,” Rathore said. “If you want to know nothing and act like an ostrich, it’s fine not to investigate.”

The topics of sexual orientation and gender identity have been controversial in Florida. The Legislature approved and Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Bill. Opponents call it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The law prohibits teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and prohibits any classroom discussion of the topic that is not “age-appropriate.”

The State Board of Education has until June 2023 to define what this means.

Four states did not participate in the 2019 survey – Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

“If we can’t know what the degree of mental health issues is, what the degree of suicide in activity or ideation is – how can we do suicide prevention?” Rathore said.

The percentage of Florida high school students reporting feelings of hopelessness has increased, especially among women. In 2001, less than one in three teens reported feeling hopeless every day for at least two weeks, causing them to stop doing some usual activities. By 2007, that figure had dropped to around 1 in 4, and it was stable thanks to several surveys. In 2019, the last for which there is public data, it had risen to 34%.

The results of the 2021 survey, which was conducted after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, have not yet been released.

Six of the most populous counties used CDC funding to collect county-level data. These include Duval, Hillsborough, Orange, and Miami-Dade counties.

“If we don’t know where our young people are in terms of mental health, how are we going to improve services for our young people? How are we going to allocate resources? How are we going to ensure that there is enough information for policy makers, for people on the ground, to implement these policies, and for the state to fund these programs? said Rathore.

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