Youth Mental Health – Local Findings and 2021 Data

The Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) is an important tool used to understand how students in grades 6 to 12 see their community, school, family, and peers. Findings from the survey help decision makers understand community strengths and identify problems that may impact students before they arrive at school, specifically related to food security, housing instability, the loss of close family and friends, and attitudes and knowledge concerning alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and violence.

The Pennsylvania Youth Survey is a biennial effort that began in 1989. It is supported by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). The survey is voluntary and confidential. The data gathered by the survey serves two purposes:

  • First, the results provide school administrators, state agency directors, legislators and others with critical information concerning the changes in patterns of the use and abuse of harmful substances and behaviors.
  • Second, the survey assesses risk factors that are related to these behaviors and the protective factors that help guard against them. This information allows community leaders to direct prevention resources to areas where they are likely to have the greatest impact.

The Partnership for Better Health commissioned a report to combine PAYS results in our service area from 2017, 2019, and 2021. Findings from this report were shared during our Youth-Serving Professionals Forum held in Carlisle on May 2, 2023. The presentation was led by Sharron Michels. Sharron is an independent consultant, former and founding Executive Director of Collaborating For Youth, and a former PAYS Statewide Advisory Group Member. Panelists included Geoff Kolchin (Deputy Director of the Office of Justice Programs, Unit of Violence Prevention Initiatives, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency); Fiona Williston (Prevention Program Supervisor for the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission); and Lisa Harrison (Youth Aid Panel Director for the Cumberland County Juvenile Probation).

Findings from the Partnership for Better Health’s PAYS area report included the following:

  • 90 percent of youth report not drinking alcohol in the last 30 days.
  • When asked where they get alcohol, 33 percent of students report parents provide and 17 percent gave someone money to purchase for them; 36 percent of respondents took alcohol without permission.
  • While marijuana use is down from 2017, 33 percent of 12th grade students report electronic vaping marijuana or hash oil in the past 12 months (up from 15 percent in 2017).
  • 65 percent of 12th grade students report vaping nicotine in the past 12 months.
  • 71 percent of 6th grade students “don’t know” whether the e-cigarettes or vaping they used in the past 12 months contained just flavoring, nicotine, or marijuana/hash oil.
  • Of the 26 percent of youth that reported being bullied in the past 12 months, 52 percent selected it was based on the “way I look (hairstyle/clothes)” and 44 percent report it was based on “size.”
  • 11 percent of youth have worried about running out of food in the past 12 months and 6 percent of students have gone without a meal due to family finances (8 percent of 12th grade students).
  • 43 percent of students report feeling depressed or sad most days for at least two weeks over the past 12 months.
  • 19 percent of youth (24 percent of 8th graders) have cut, scraped, or burned themselves in the past year as a way to relieve difficult feelings and emotions.
  • 20 percent of students report considering suicide in the past 12 months, and 12 percent report attempting suicide.
  • 40 percent of students report enjoying being in school during the past year, and 35 percent believe the work they do in school is meaningful and important.
  • 53 percent of students report their teachers praise them for hard work, 78 percent report many opportunities to talk with their teachers one-on-one, and 82 percent of students report “I feel safe at my school.”

Sharron Michels reviewed findings from the schools in our geographic region of South Central Pennsylvania. Panelists shared how they use the PAYS data in their work and encouraged attendees to consider building more protective factors and pro-social opportunities for youth to mitigate risks.

“PAYS is a crucial tool that helps us understand the myriad of issues faced by youth in our community,” said Carol Thornton, Director of Grants and Public Policy at the Partnership for Better Health. “Our foundation is committed to understanding and addressing the needs of our youth, related to substance use, mental health, food, and housing.”

View the 2021 PAYS summary report online, or view presentation slides from the Youth-Serving Professionals Forum.

To better understand the youth in our region and across the state, visit the Pennsylvania Youth Survey website, which has statewide data from 1989-2021. You can view data by county or request PAYS summary reports that include data for multiple school districts. Each school district is also provided with a customized report for 2021 that can be shared upon request – contact your school district to see a report specific to your student’s school.

See below for more information and resources.

The next survey is scheduled for the 2023 school year and registration is now open! Encourage your school district to participate and remind them that the data is valuable in securing funding for need-based programs. Learn more: