WAKEFIELD — The lockdowns and social restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have had an impact on the emotional well-being of local youth as well as on patterns of substance abuse, according to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

The 2021 Youth Risk behavior Survey (YRBS) was presented to the School Committee Tuesday night by Catherine Dhingra of the Health Department along with Wakefield Public Schools Director of Athletics, Health and Wellness Brendan Kent and district Mental Health Coordinator Andrew Cedrone.

The YRBS was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor health risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disease, injury and social problems among youth.

The anonymous survey includes questions about tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, sexual behaviors that might lead to unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, dietary behaviors, physical activity and behaviors associated with intentional or unintentional injuries.

The 2021 YRBS was administered in April 2021 to the WMHS student body and to 7th and 8th grade Galvin Middle School students. Since 2019, the survey has been administered as a regional collaboration with the Middlesex League schools, providing regional data for comparison.

The goal of the survey, Dhingra said, was to increase understanding of the prevalence of risky behaviors amongst teens and identify areas of prevention that need to be strengthened.

Dhingra said that there are safeguards built into the survey to ensure that answers are honest. According to the CDC, research indicates data of this nature may be gathered as credibly from adolescents as from adults. Internal reliability checks help identify the small percentage of students who falsify their answers.

Dhingra noted that students could skip any questions that they were uncomfortable answering and could opt out of the test at any time. The survey included questions related to race, sexual orientation and gender identification.

The survey asked a number of questions related to the pandemic. Students were asked if they experienced fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness or frustration as a result of the pandemic. Fifty-eight percent of Galvin Middle School students answered in the affirmative. At the high school 62 percent of the students said they experienced one or more of those feelings.

Students were asked, “During the pandemic, how often was your mental health not good? Poor mental health includes stress, anxiety and depression.”

At the Galvin Middle School, 27 percent of the students said they experienced those feelings most or all of the time. At the high school 36 percent answered that that their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic.

The survey showed that 12 percent of WMHS students seriously considered suicide in the past year, while 9 percent made a plan to do so. Among Galvin students, 19 percent said they seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, while 12 percent said they made a plan.

Cedrone and Kent talked about the increased strategies that the schools have implemented to address students’ social emotional well-being, including increasing the number of adjustment counselors at the Galvin and the high school. More students have also been referred to “Interface,” a mental health and wellness referral helpline. They also cited increased programming with Eliot Crisis Management and the establishment of a student support website.

Sixteen percent of WMHS students reported using e-cigarettes in the past year, which is significantly higher than the 11 percent figure for the Middlesex league. However the WMHS number was much lower than previous years, and social restrictions during the pandemic were believed to be a factor in the drop.

Among WMHS students, 3 percent said that they had smoked a cigarette in the past month, which was about the same as Middlesex League number.

Among Galvin 7th and 8th graders, 3.3 percent reported using e-cigarette products over the last month, higher than the 1 percent for the Middlesex League.

Sixteen percent of WMHS students reported using marijuana in the last 30 says, higher than the 12 percent figure for the Middlesex League. The 16 percent figure for WMHS is lower than previous years, but this was also felt to be at least in part due to the pandemic related lockdowns and restrictions. WMHS marijuana use peaked at 30 percent in the 2017 YRBS.

One percent of Galvin 7th and 8th graders reported using cannabis in the last 30 days.

Moving to alcohol, 22 percent of WMHS students reported drinking in the previous 30 days and 15 percent reported “binge drinking.” Those figures were similar to the 2019 numbers.

Three percent of Galvin 7th and 8th graders reported drinking in the previous month.

One percent of WMHS students said that they had driven a car under the influence of alcohol, but 5 percent said that they had operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana.

Among WMHS students, 25 percent admitted that they had checked their cell phone, texted or emailed while driving in the past 30 days.

Dhinga said that youth perception of risk associated with a given behavior is closely correlated with the likelihood of engaging in that behavior. The 2021 YRBS showed that 78 percent of WMHS students perceive alcohol use as harmful, while just 52 percent view marijuana as harmful. Ninety-seven percent saw abuse of prescription drugs as harmful. Cigarette use was viewed as harmful by 92 percent of WMHS students, while 86 percent perceived e-cigarettes as harmful.

Kent and Cedrone talked about ongoing strategies in the schools to combat youth substance abuse.

Twelve percent of WMHS students reported online bullying in the last couple of months, while 10 percent said that they had been bullied in school. Twenty-five percent of Galvin 7th and 8th graders reported online bullying. Twenty-six percent said they had been bullied in school.

Cedrone and Kent talked about the strategies to address bullying in the schools, including the presence of School Resource Officers at WMHS & Galvin, collaboration with Wakefield Alliance Against Violence and increasing clubs and after school offerings for all students.

They also discussed other “protective factors,” including students having a trusted adult to talk to in school as well as a parent/guardian or other adult to talk to.

School Committee member Amy Leeman commented on some of the survey’s questions around mental health.

“Stress and anxiety are normal feelings,” she observed. “We want kids to know that these are normal feelings and to work through them. I almost feel as though these surveys raise a little anxiety. Kids are stressed about school work but may not be depressed.”