CDC releases 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results

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  • The 2021 YRBS data tell a concerning story about the health and well-being of U.S. students.
  • Students continue to experience poor mental health.
  • This data set includes questions on school connectedness, parental monitoring, and unstable housing for the first time.
  • While these health risk behaviors and experiences vary by sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and grade, the 2021 YRBS results show that there is more work to do to help all youth develop healthy behaviors.

CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) monitors priority health risks and experiences among U.S. high school students across the country. Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) results help us understand what contributes to the leading causes of death and disability among youth.

What did the 2021 YRBS find?

The full set of data from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) provides the first YRBS data since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It shows that while there are some areas of improvement, many youth struggle to some extent with threats to their health and well-being. Many of these trends have worsened over the last decade.

The data tell a concerning story about the health and well-being of our nation’s youth. Findings are especially stark among some students.

Students are experiencing a mental health crisis. 2021 YRBS results showed over 40 percent (42%) of high school students struggle with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and nearly 30 percent (29%) experienced poor mental health.

Portrait of smiling Lesbian Young Woman on an LGBTQ parade

Female students and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning (LGBTQ+) are experiencing disproportionate levels of poor mental health and suicide-related behaviors as compared to their peers.

Female students, for example, experienced more violence, mental health challenges, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and substance use than their male peers. The disparities and the rates at which female students experienced such trauma and harm are substantial.

In 2021:

  • The percentage of female students who had ever experienced forced sex increased for the first time in 10 years, with 14% of female students having this experience.
  • Female students were nearly twice as likely to experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide during the past year compared to their male peers; with nearly 6 in 10 feeling persistently sad or hopeless and more than 1 in 10 attempting suicide.

As we have seen in previous data, LGBQ+ students, defined in this survey as those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, or another non-heterosexual identity, continue to experience more violence and mental distress than their heterosexual peers.

In 2021:

  • More than 2 in 10 LGBQ+ students did not go to school because of safety concerns; nearly 1 in 4 experienced sexual violence, and nearly 1 in 4 were bullied at school during the past year.
  • LGBQ+ students were nearly 4 times as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide during the past year, with more than 2 in 10 reporting this experience.

What new information is in the 2021 YRBS?

New YRBS questions provide an opportunity to address emerging adolescent health issues among an increasingly diverse student population. The 2021 YRBS data provide insight into three new areas of the adolescent experience. Here’s what we learned about them.

School Connectedness

School connectedness is a student’s belief that that adults and peers in their school care about their learning, and about them as individuals.

  • Almost 62% of high school students reported feeling connected to others at school.
  • Students who feel connected to school experience less emotional distress, better mental health, and fewer suicidal thoughts. These protective effects can last into adulthood.
  • Feelings of connectedness were lower among students who were female, American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer/questioning (LGBQ). More needs to be done in schools to increase feelings of connectedness for these groups.

Parental Monitoring

Parental monitoring is often defined as parents’ knowledge of their child’s whereabouts, companions, and activities.

  • 86% of high school students reported high parental monitoring.
  • All students, including females and LGBQ+ students, who reported high parental monitoring experienced fewer sexual risk behaviors, less substance use, less violence, and better mental health—including fewer suicide-attempts.

Unstable Housing

Unstable housing is the lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

  • Nearly 3% of high school students experienced unstable housing.
  • Rates of unstable housing are higher among youth of color and LGBQ+ youth.
  • Youth who experience unstable housing face higher risks for poor physical and mental health outcomes—including increased risk for suicide.

What does the YRBSS monitor?

CDC’s YRBSS is the only surveillance system designed to monitor a wide range of priority health behaviors and experiences among representative samples of high school students at the national, state, and local levels.

National, state, and local surveys are conducted every 2 years among high school students throughout the United States.

What can we do to help reduce health risks among students?

We all have a role to play in helping youth become healthy, thriving adults. CDC leads the way in using data to drive action to address the most significant issues emerging among adolescents.

YRBS data shows us where youth and schools need help the most. Families; school administrators, teachers, staff, and students; and community partners can then work together to address and reduce risks to the health of our nation’s youth.

Three teenagers African American and Asian High School friends watching smartphone together

In 2021, more than 17,000 U.S. high school students participated in YRBS surveys conducted in 45 states, 28 local school districts, 3 territories, and 2 tribal governments.

Here are some things we can do:
  • Increase feelings of school connectedness. Schools can build environments that are safe and supportive, delivering evidence-based health education with a focus on building skills for healthy decision-making, and connecting students to necessary health services.
  • Engage in more parental monitoring. Families can stay engaged in their adolescents’ daily lives and talk to them about their values.
  • Provide care and services to youth who are unstably housed. Schools can use YRBS data to inform programs and policies or offer resources that meet the needs of students experiencing housing instability.
  • Support more schools across the country. CDC’s What Works In Schools program has demonstrated impact on health behaviors and experiences that can help schools reverse the negative trends affecting youth. The program supports school districts across the country to improve school connectedness, link youth and their families to needed services at school or in the community and implement quality health education.