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Survey on teen health and mental health dropped at the 'worst time,' pediatric expert says

Florida will no longer participate in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, drawing alarm from doctors and child welfare agencies.

Florida teenagers will no longer be asked if they've gotten into a fight, use drugs or feel hopeless in a biennial survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This month, the state opted to end its participating in the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The questionnaire had been distributed to thousands of teens in Florida since 1991.

"This is the worst time one could pick to do this," said Dr. Mobeen Rathore, associate chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UF Health Jacksonville, and past president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "This comes at a time when it is more important than ever to have this sort of data for the health and well-being of our young people."

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

Teens are asked if they text while driving, vape and tan indoors.

"I think that these (surveys) allow us to propose increase allocations towards services and for mental health, well-being, physical well-being, prevention services," said Rathore.

The survey analyzes data several ways, such as race and grade. It also offers data based upon a teen 's sexual orientation, including one option for those answering the questions – "not sure."

"I think one of the things that this program does is it tells us about the services and the challenges LGBTQ youth are facing," Rathore said. "If you want to not know about a thing and act like an ostrich, this is perfect not to do the survey."

The topics of sexual orientation and gender identity have been controversial in Florida. The Legislature approved and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Bill. Opponents refer to it as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. The law prohibits teaching gender identity and sexual orientation to kindergartners through third-graders, and bans any classroom discussion of the topic that is not "age appropriate."

The state Board of Education has until June 2023 to define what that means.

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

"If we cannot find out what's the degree of mental health issues, what's the degree of suicide in activity or ideation – how can we do suicide prevention? " said Rathore.

The percentage of Florida high schoolers reporting feelings of hopelessness has increased, especially among females. In 2001, less than 1 out of 3 teens reported feeling hopeless every day for at least two weeks , causing them to stop doing some usual activities. By 2007, that had fallen to about 1 out of 4 , and it was steady through several surveys. In 2019, the latest for which there is public data, it had increased to 34%.

Results of the 2021 survey, which was conducted after the COVID-19 pandemic began, have not been released yet.

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

"If we don't know where our youth are with their mental health, how are we going to better services for our youth? How are we going to allocate resources? How are we going to make sure there's enough information for policymakers to make a policy for the people on the ground, implement those policies, and for the state to fund those programs?" said Rathore.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.