By Molly Harbarger

The Oregonian

In Oregon, the kids are increasingly not all right. A report from the Oregon Health Authority shows that middle- and high school-aged children feel they struggle more with mental illness and cope less well with the stress of their lives than was the case as recently as two years ago.

Compared with 2015 and particularly 2013, more eighth- and 11th- graders reported they have unmet mental health needs on the biennial Oregon Healthy Teens Survey. This year, almost 19 percent of eighth-graders and 22 percent of 11th-graders reported that unmet need on the survey, given to more than 12,000 students in each grade at public schools throughout the state last spring.

A quarter of eighth-graders said their emotional or mental health was fair or poor. A third of 11th-graders did.

At the same time, fewer students reported that they know how to cope with everyday stress and anxiety — a measure of resiliency that officials use to take the mental temperature of Oregon teens.

More than 40 percent of students in both grades surveyed did not meet the state’s benchmark for coping ability. About a third said they felt so sad and hopeless, they had stopped doing normal activities. As many as 18 percent said they had contemplated suicide.

Nearly 9 percent of eighth- graders reported they had, in fact, attempted suicide in the past year and 7 percent of 11th- graders did.

While the survey didn’t search out causes for why teenagers feel hopeless, sad or anxious, experts in child psychology say the high proportions of Oregon teens who reported stress and turmoil — and no way to combat them — aren’t surprising.

Terrorism, cellphones and increased economic insecurity for Oregon families all play a role.

Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, said that he and his colleagues see a confluence of relatively new challenges that parents and national health care policy are just now confronting.

“I think we’ve reached a place where there’s a fork in the road: There could be movement around what’s best for kids based around obvious negative trend lines,” Jetmalani said.

Virtually all the teens who took the survey were from 13 to 17 years old. They grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which reshaped the economy into one of heavily low-wage and freelance jobs with a historically wide gap between the very rich and the poor. These children’s parents spent a large portion of their lives in the fear-filled years after 9/11.

“These kids now are the product of an environment where people were incredibly distressed and were frightened about safety, were frightened about economic security,” Jetmalani said. “We know when people are preoccupied or stressed or experiencing trauma, that can impact the relationship between family members and that can impact a community.”

Statewide, half of Oregon students qualify for subsidized school meals, indicating they come from families living below 185 percent of the poverty line. Some of those experience extreme deprivation and lack of security, with 22,541 kids found to be homeless at some point during 2016-17.

When parents are focused on where and when their children will eat or sleep, they have less capacity for their kids’ emotional needs, according to studies. That instability shows up in how those kids function, as well. They often lose sleep, perform poorly in school and act out, which often leads to punishment.

Up to 40 percent of students reported they had missed at least one day of school for mental health reasons. About as many skipped school for any reason, according to the survey.

The report does not draw conclusions or link the results, but state analysts say that many of these trends are related. For instance, the increase in teens saying they have mental health issues that haven’t been addressed corresponds closely to their decreasing ability to cope in tough times.

“Those are two rates that are corresponding,” said Wes Rivers, adolescent health policy assessment specialist for the Oregon Health Authority.

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