Happiness gap: 10 signs that some students are less OK than others

Students share eye-opening revelations about the severity of the mental health problem in a new survey.

The youth mental health crisis should not be news to K-12 leaders, but what do you know about the “happiness gap?”

It’s among the eye-opening revelations students themselves are sharing about the severity of the youth mental health crisis gripping the nation.

Their perspectives on happiness, suicide, bullying and whether they can get help at school are detailed in YouthTruth’s latest survey of more than 200,000 students in 20 states. The poll sought students’ insights in five major categories: obstacles to learning, the happiness gap, getting help, talking to someone, and suicide.

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“Student responses show that we should all be concerned about the intersection of mental health and equity as some groups of students are especially in need of informed action,” the report says. “Youth express a collective desire—they even demand—that adults involve them in creating a more responsive education system so that they can, as one student put it, ‘find our way back to loving learning.’”

Mental health crisis by the numbers

1. Obstacles to learning

  • “Depression, stress and anxiety” are the biggest obstacles to learning for secondary students at every grade level, six through 12. More than half of both high school and middle school students reported it as the largest barrier.
  • The percentage of secondary students who say “getting picked on or bullied” is an obstacle drops from grades six through 12. But LGBTQ+ middle and high school students report at double the rate of their peers that bullying is a barrier.

More obstacles: Boys were the least likely to say depression, stress and anxiety prevented them from learning while large majorities of non-binary and transgender students say mental health is a major barrier at school. All secondary students say distractions at home, family responsibilities, health concerns, and personal relationships also get in the way. High school students also noted extracurricular commitments as a hurdle while middle schoolers worry about having internet access.

2. Happiness gap

  • The percentage of children and youth who feel happy about their lives declines from grades three through 12.
  • There is a gender happiness gap at every grade level: A larger percentage of boys report feeling happy about their lives than students who identify as female or non-binary.

More gaps: The happiness gap is a chasm for non-binary middle and high school students. There is a 47% gap in reports of happiness between these students and boys, who are their happiest peers. In all grades, only white middle school students report happiness at a significantly higher percentage than their peers. A little over half—55%—of high school students feel happy about their lives.

3. Getting help

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  • Just over one in five middle and high school students say they have seen a school counselor, a therapist, or a psychologist.
  • Fewer than half of middle school students and only about a third of high school students agree their school has services or programs that help them when they are upset, stressed, or having problems.

More help: White students (28%) report speaking with a high school counselor or psychologist at a higher rate than all other students (24%). Latinx students report seeking help at a significantly lower percentage (20%). LGBTQ+ students in middle and high school are far more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to report seeking counseling in school.

4. Talking to someone

  • The percentage of elementary students who say they have an adult they can talk to at school when they are upset drops steadily from third grade (61%) to fourth grade (55%) to fifth grade (50%).
  • Fewer than half of secondary students—regardless of grade level, gender, race, or LGBTQ+ status—report that there is an adult at school they can talk to.

More talk: Fewer than 50% of secondary students in all demographic groups say they have an adult at school they can talk to when they feel upset,
stressed, or have a problem.

5. Suicide

  • 13% of middle school students and 14% of high school students say they have considered suicide in the last year.
  • There is no significant difference in the percentage of youth reporting that they have considered suicide in the previous year by grade level or by race but there are “alarming” differences by gender identity and LGBTQ+ status.

More despair: The groups who report the highest rates of seriously considering suicide are transgender middle and high school students. “An astonishing preponderance of transgender youth report that they have felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more that they stopped doing some of their usual activities,” the report concludes.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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