The mental health of North Carolina students is showing signs of improvement, possibly due in part to increased physical activity, according to the 2023 North Carolina Youth Risk Behavior Surveys presented to the NC State Board of Education on June 5. The data marks a positive shift after nearly a decade of declining physical activity and mental health metrics.

The NC Middle School Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the NC High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey are administered biennially to representative samples of randomly selected students. These surveys are anonymous, and parents have the option to opt their child out of participating, although survey questions have prompted concern from parents in the past.

The latest data indicates notable improvements since the 2021 surveys, which were the first conducted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The percentage of high school students who reported feeling sad or hopeless dropped to 39% in 2023, down from 43% in 2021. For middle school students, the percentage feeling sad or hopeless decreased from 35% to 32% over the same period. The percentage of high school students who seriously considered suicide in the past year decreased from 22% in 2021 to 18% in 2023. That number is still up form the 2015 rate of 16%.

As Carolina Journal previously reported, the suicide rate for youths between the ages of 10- and 17-years-old reached the highest level in two decades in 2021.

“It’s so encouraging to see that students are not only recovering from the effects of the pandemic but in many cases, doing better than they were in 2019 and before,” said deputy state superintendent Michael Maher, who oversees standards, accountability, and research, in a statement.

The survey also showed a decline in the use of vape products, marijuana, and alcohol among high school students, while cigarette smoking remained stagnant at an all-time low of 4%. There were no significant changes in prescription painkiller use or bullying.

In light of the increasing role of technology in students’ lives, this year’s surveys included questions about social media usage for the first time. Results showed that over 80% of high schoolers use social media multiple times a day, with around half of these students checking their accounts at least once an hour. Middle schoolers reported slightly lower usage, with 63% using social media several times daily.

Physical activity levels among students have also increased. Forty-two percent of high school students reported being physically active for at least 60 minutes on five or more days a week, up from 34% in 2021. Among middle school students, 52% reported being physically active for at least 60 minutes on five or more days a week, an increase from 44% in 2021.

Ellen Essick, section chief for NC Healthy Schools, noted the well-documented positive impact of exercise on mental health. An amendment to the existing Healthy Active Children Policy was presented to the State Board, proposing to expand the current requirement of 30 minutes of physical activity per day for kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The revisions would encourage high schools to offer students 60 minutes of physical activity per week.

“We’ve heard over and over from school leaders that student mental health is a top priority for them, and it’s a top priority for us at NCDPI, too,” Essick said. “Based on the YRBS data and national research, we believe this addition to the Healthy Active Children Policy will make a positive impact. Students can’t reach their full potential in the classroom if they are not mentally and physically well. Giving them more access to exercise during the school day should ultimately result in better academic outcomes.”

The board could vote on a policy change as early as July.