More than a third of Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) students, including nearly half of all high school seniors, reported experiencing a high level of stress within the past month, Fairfax County’s annual youth survey found.
Administered in November 2015 and released on Sept. 26, 2016, the survey collected 33,276 responses from eighth, 10th and 12th grade students on alcohol and drug use, sexual activity and violence, bullying, physical and mental health, and other behaviors.
A separate survey given to sixth graders received 11,932 responses.
35.9 percent of the students who responded to the Fairfax County 2015-16 Youth Survey rated their stress levels in the past month as high, while 43 percent of respondents reported moderate levels of stress and 20.8 percent reported low levels.
The older students were, the more likely they were to experience high levels of stress. 12th grade students reported experiencing the most stress with 45.7 percent falling on the high end of the survey’s 1-10 rating scale, where a response of 8, 9 or 10 referred to high stress levels.
The survey also used race and gender as measuring criteria, with Asian students most likely to report feeling a high level of stress and black students least likely.
Almost half, or 45 percent, of all female students reported high stress, whereas only 26 of male students said that they had experienced the same thing, an imbalance that carried over to reports of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Fairfax County first partnered with FCPS to conduct a student survey in 2001, initially distributing the questionnaire once every two years before turning it into an annual practice in 2009.
“As a community, we want to know how our youth are doing in terms of behaviors that are both risky and healthy,” said youth survey project manager Sophia Dutton, who oversees the survey as part of the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services’ countywide service integration and planning management division. “At the same time, we were also measuring risk and protective factors that influence the likelihood of them engaging in risky behaviors.”
Early on, the Fairfax County Youth Survey primarily focused on substance use, possession of weapons, and other behaviors that Dutton labels as risky, but over time, administrators added new questions and categories as the county and school system started to expand the ways in which they used the results.
In addition to the question about stress levels, the 2015-16 edition of the survey included a new query about student use of electronic cigarettes, an attempt to stay up-to-date with modern trends.
E-cigarettes turned out to be the second-most commonly used substance among eighth-graders, just beneath the number who reported taking painkillers without a doctor’s order, and more students overall reported smoking e-cigarettes in the previous month than traditional cigarettes, with 5.7 percent of respondents citing the former compared to 3.4 percent for the latter.
Dutton calls this one of the survey’s most surprising findings, but it’s generally in line with national data on the use of e-cigarettes.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about five out of every 100 middle school students, and 16 of every 100 high school students, reported using an e-cigarette within the past 30 days in 2015, an increase in both cases from 2011.
In comparison, regular cigarette use dropped from 2011 to 2015, with two in 100 middle school students and nine in 100 high school students reporting smoking cigarettes in 2015.
“We’re still trying to educate our students to the dangers of e-cigarettes, because I think there might be a lot of confusion,” Dutton said. “Seeing the county following the national trends of our youths using e-cigarettes more than regular cigarettes is something that was interesting and clearly we need to address.”
Alcohol is the most prevalently used substance among students as a whole, followed by marijuana, according to the Fairfax County 2015-16 Youth Survey.
Approximately 35 percent of Fairfax County students reported drinking alcohol at least once in their lifetime, though that marks a 9.7 percent decrease since 2011. Female students reported higher rates of alcohol use than their male counterparts.
Overall, reported alcohol prevalence rates for lifetime drinking, drinking within the past month and binge-drinking, which is defined as more than five drinks in a row within the past two weeks, were the lowest they’ve been in the past five years.
Dutton says that Fairfax County collects data through the youth survey to determine which students are most at-risk when it comes to different behaviors.
Having that information makes it easier for the county and its schools to intervene and evaluate the effectiveness of their services, while also targeting those services toward the people who need them the most.
Fairfax County also sometimes uses the survey results when looking for funding. For example, data on obesity and how many students eat five fruits and vegetables a day can be used to apply for grants to support nutritional programs.
“The data is our starting point,” Dutton said. “We can talk about X number [of students] report feeling depressive symptoms, so…what are we going to do about it? It’s kind of the platform for discussion, so we look at that, and across time, we try to see where things are moving.”
The full Fairfax County 2015-16 Youth Survey report, along with the results from previous surveys, can be found on the county’s website.