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Students in Wasatch County respond to wellness survey; COVID-19 impacts were surprising

Wasatch County High School

Wasatch County students report struggling with depression and isolation less than their peers across Utah, according to their school district's Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey results.

The SHARP Survey is given every two years to students in grades six, eight, ten, and twelve. It measures substance use, anti-social behavior, and risk factors that predict students' behaviors.

Wasatch County School District Family Education Center Director Ben Springer said it appears students fared well through the pandemic. The survey shows fewer students participated in certain risky behaviors in 2021 compared with prior years and with state averages.

But some of the results still warrant attention.

Forty percent of Wasatch County School District seniors responded they experienced anxiety due to COVID. Springer said even pre-COVID, the older the kids get, the more the risk factors expand, and protective factors like family time decrease.
"The seniors in high school, if you think about it as culminating, almost a rite of passage event for anybody attending public school is your senior year. You know, and COVID really impacted all those activities and the social events that seniors have. You know, they're striving for those moments as the culmination of their career."

Twenty percent of students reported a high need for mental health treatment. Springer said the more popular culture addresses the stigma around treatment, the more likely young people will talk about it and reach out. Springer has been with the district nine years, and during that time, he's seen mental health support expanded with staffing and new programs.

"It's a need that kids feel comfortable asking for it. They're very adept at identifying it in themselves and others, and they're actually, I would say, very open to discussing it and at least being open to receiving those services."

The survey poses questions about alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and vaping. Springer said he’s optimistic about students’ responses.

"And it's always been, I would say, less of an issue in our community, our district, of substance abuse and alcohol use. It exists. We know--we're not naive to the fact that it doesn't happen around here. "

He said the Parkland Shooting in Florida sparked a shift in how the community looked at school safety. That led to the creation of the Family Education Center, which provides resources and courses for families, faculty, and staff.
"After school hours, we have resources for families and our educators if they're struggling in any way. And so, we offer a whole slew of courses through our Wasatch Wellness Initiative, which you can register on our website. And we have about eight courses, Tuesdays and Thursday evenings, all designed to help community outreach."

About 30% of Wasatch County students said they have easy access to handguns. 28% of Wasatch students, compared to 22% statewide, responded that guns and bullets are unlocked and accessible at home. Springer said that reflects a cultural attitude toward firearms in Wasatch County.

"Blending those two kind of recreational and cultural phenomenon with school shootings is always a stretch because rural communities have a long history of having access, you know, and using firearms for hunting and recreation. But it is a concern, like when we see that we certainly don't ignore it."      

The percentage of Wasatch students who feel left out, isolated, and alone is 4-5% lower than state average. But Springer said isolation and bullying are a concern related to suicide risk. Springer said it's essential to validate what kids are going through, especially considering child access to information and the impacts of social media - and kids need tools to navigate the new world.

"But it's really hard to talk about these big issues inside a family without somebody coaching or giving you some pointers about how to do it. And that's what we're trying to do--to have all these conversations about safety and wellness--coaching parents on ways that we can navigate these through parenting and school, and then obviously through a partnership."

Springer said keeping kids engaged and learning during the pandemic happened thanks to the one-to-one digital program already in place. He added that the Department of Health, the school board, the school district, and the community navigated together to limit the interruption to students.

You can find information about the Wasatch Wellness Initiative on the school district's website, and a link to the SHARP survey resultshere.


KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.