Number of Iowa teens who considered suicide climbs 50 percent in 6 years

2018 Iowa Youth Survey shows increased suicide risk; alcohol, drug use declining

Ryan Nesbit

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Ryan Nesbit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The number of Iowa’s youth who reported thoughts of suicide increased more than 50 percent over the past half-dozen years, according to the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey released Tuesday by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

According to the new survey, there has been a 53 percent increase between 2012 and 2018 among students who reported having a plan to kill themselves — an alarming statistic, but not shocking to some suicide prevention advocates.

“I feel our culture and society has rapidly changed and it is very hard to be a student in this era,” said Ryan Nesbit, board co-chairman for the Iowa chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and based in Ankeny.

Conducted every two or three years, the Iowa Youth Survey collects responses among middle and high school students on their experiences with alcohol and other drug use, their attitudes toward their peers, school and their environment and their general well-being.

For the 2018 annual report, the state Department of Public Health received more than 70,000 responses from sixth- , eighth- and 11th-grade students across the state between Oct. 1 through Nov. 9, 2018. A total of 69,091 students were attending public schools and 1,360 students were attending non-public schools.

“The Iowa Youth Survey gives us a glimpse into the lives of our young people,” Public Health Department Iowa Youth Survey coordinator Pat McGovern said in a news release.

“While the answers represent a moment in time and do not give a complete view of the preteen and teenage mind-set, they do give us a glimpse into their actions and beliefs.”


Tuesday’s report showed an increasing number of Iowa middle and high school students reported suicidal thoughts at a higher rate than in previous surveys, according to department officials.

Twenty-one percent of all students who responded to the survey stated they had thought about killing themselves in the past 12 months.

Among female students alone, that rate increased to 27 percent while 16 percent of male students considered the same possibility.

Five percent of respondents reported they tried to kill themselves in the past 12 months, and one in every 10 students said they had made a plan about how to commit suicide, according to the report.

Nesbit attributes a number of factors to this increase, but points in particular to the pressure to succeed in school and extracurricular activities he said students in this age group face often.

“Many students that I talk to are getting pushed so hard by parents, coaches and peers,” he said. “We never really teach these kids how to lose in activities, so when they do lose, because they haven’t built up resilience, it can be fatal.”

In the 2018 survey, 61 percent of students agreed with the statement that adults in the community let them know when they are proud of the student — a decrease from the 68 percent reported in 2012.

Eighty-three percent of students from all surveyed grades, however, also said they have someone in their home they can talk to about things that bother them.

Social media

This pressure is compounded by social media that Nesbit said creates “a false representation of reality” to which students often compare themselves.

“We are making progress, but we still have people who can’t get past stigma,” he said. “Some schools or administrators still fear the word ‘suicide’ and think if they ignore that topic, there won’t be an issue in their district.”

In its other findings, the Iowa Youth Survey reported a drop in how safe students felt at their school. In 2018, 84 percent of students said they feel safe at school — but in 2012, 90 percent of students had said they felt safe.

Tobacco and other substance use remained stable or declined.

However, the survey found that use of e-cigarettes increased this year. Nearly 25 percent of 11th grade students, as well as 8 percent of eighth-graders and 2 percent of sixth-graders, reported use of an e-cigarette in the past month on the survey.

The survey also found that, in general, underage drinking among Iowans is on the decline — with the exception of eighth-graders, who reported an increase in drinking in 2018, rising to 7.3 percent, from 5.4 percent, in 2016.

Alcohol use among 11th-graders in 2018 was at 20.4 percent — a decrease from 26.4 percent in 2012.

Nesbit said he hopes to see more action from lawmakers at the State Capital to create mental health initiatives for Iowans, and added that there’s “a long list” of steps that could be taken among local leaders to make a difference.

“I 100 percent believe this needs to be approached from community standpoint,” Nesbit said. “It’s not just schools, its churches, community leaders, businesses, health centers. Everyone has to work together because this is becoming at almost epidemic level.”

For those considering suicide or who are otherwise in distress, the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536;

‘Getting pushed so hard’


More than 70,000 responses were received from sixth- , eighth- and 11th-grade Iowa students between Oct. 1 through Nov. 9, 2018, to the state’s Department of Public Health survey. Among the information reported:

• 5 — Percent of respondents who said they’d tried to kill themselves in the past 12 months.

• 21 — Percent of respondents who reported they had thought about killing themselves in that time period.

• 27 — Percent of female students who responded they had thought about killing themselves.

• 16 — Percent of male students who had considered that possibility.

• 1 in 10 — Number of students who said they had made a plan as to how to commit suicide.

Source: Iowa Department of Public Health’s 2018 Iowa Youth Survey

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