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Results from 2024 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey show improved youth mental health, substance use


The biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey gives insight into student behaviors, attitudes and perceptions, allowing schools and nonprofits to address concerning behaviors (like increases in distracted driving), building on progress (like in addressing mental health) and more.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

The past few years have been challenging for young kids and students, fighting against the emotional and physical turmoil of a global pandemic.

However, preliminary results from the 10th Healthy Kids Colorado Survey show that Eagle County kids seem to be moving beyond some of the struggles of the past few years.

“This is the first administration where I feel like the impacts of COVID are not so profound,” said Dana Whelan, Eagle County School District’s wellness coordinator.



Between favorable movement on youth mental health, substance use and other at-risk behaviors as well as increases in socialization and sense of belonging, “there’s a lot to celebrate” in the 2024 survey, added Candace Eves, a prevention coordinator for the Eagle County School District.

While there are some positives, the survey does still identify areas of concern — including demographic differences in nutrition, exercise and consent as well as still present indicators of depression, vehicle safety and device use. 

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“When you look at the numbers of kids that are struggling, there’s still a lot of kids struggling,” Whelan said. “The work continues, and we certainly want to continue the efforts that we have started.”

Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is a statewide, biennial survey administered to middle and high school students. The survey is meant to gain insight into student behaviors, attitudes and perceptions, with questions spanning school life, safety, relationships, mental and physical health, extracurricular involvement, alcohol and substance abuse, sexual activity and more. Different questions are asked to middle schools and high schools.

Locally, Mountain Youth administers the survey, acting as a liaison between the schools and the state. This year, Michelle Hartel, the organization’s executive director, reported that in 2024, the survey was administered to 14 district and non-district schools and surveyed 2,847 students.

The results are critical for local schools and youth-serving nonprofits, primarily serving as a way to assess the factors that influence student learning and wellbeing — which is inherent in their education, Hartel added.

“Learning occurs best when a student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged,” she said.

The results are also critical for local organizations in proving need for grants to help move the needle on student trends. Mountain Youth estimates that since its first administration, the survey data has helped raise around $28 million for programming that supports students and families.

Results of the 2024 survey — which was administered in January — are just beginning to come out, with Hartel presenting an initial overview of the results at the Wednesday, May 22 Board of Education meeting. Statewide results have yet to be released, and the full local results will be published on Mountain Youth’s Healthy Kids Colorado Survey dashboard later this year.

Looking ahead, this data will be shared with individual schools and nonprofits as well as create focus groups to continue to find ways to utilize the information and serve local students’ needs.

“This is a very quantitative data set, the questions are asked, and there’s not typically a whole lot of follow-up during the administration. So, that’s part of our job from here forward is to understand the context: Why are we seeing some of the shifts that we are and how can we continue to move in a favorable direction,” Hartel said.

Working with parents

The survey experienced some controversy in 2021, with parents primarily expressing concern over the addition of questions to the middle school survey around sexual consent and activity.

This year, Mountain Youth and the district made a concerted effort to increase transparency and communication around the survey. The results of this outreach were positive, Hartel noted.

This effort included earlier and more frequent communication on what survey questions would be asked and creating a smoother opt-out process for families. Overall, there were a comparable number of opt-outs compared to the last Healthy Kids administration.

“One of the things that we are starting to get a lot more feedback on is that this is opening the door for families to start having some of that communication at home about some of these areas that we’re interested in knowing more about,” Eves said.

In this way, the survey questions can serve as a conversation starter for families, she added.

Having parental collaboration and involvement in many of the topics the survey discusses is critical to the overall well-being of students, Whelan said.

“Many of the different things that our kids struggle with are the things that they look to their parents, their parents are struggling with,” Whelan added. “If nothing else, this Healthy Kids Colorado survey data is really informative to our community and to our parents about what behaviors we’re seeing our kids engaging in, and then what is our role as parents in supporting healthy behaviors and role modeling that for them.”

“How parents, other adults and even peers are modeling behaviors is so important for what our kids are taking away as norms and what are acceptable behaviors,” Hartel added.

The district, Whelan added, is excited about the opportunity to work with parents.

“We’ll look forward to how together we can be better, where it’s not just the school side of things or a parent side of things, but how do we meet our students where they’re at and with their needs?” she said.

‘A lot to celebrate’

A screenshot of Mountain Youth’s presentation on the 2024 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey results showing changes in students feeling like they belong and have a voice between the last two survey administrations.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy Photo

COVID-19 had a profound impact on student mental health, substance use and sense of connectedness — something that was seen in the previous survey administration. However, recent school and community efforts to address this seem to be moving the needle in the right direction, noted district staff.

“The prevention work that we’ve been doing seems to be trending in the right direction, just overall,” said Melisa Rewold-Thuon, the district’s assistant superintendent. This includes building out mental health support as well as increasing mental health literacy and education.

“When we’re looking at at-risk behaviors, generally, we’re seeing those trends in the better direction,” Rewold-Thuon added.

A screenshot of Mountain Youth’s presentation on the 2024 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey results showing some of the mental health trends for middle and high school students.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy Photo

In general, Hartel and the district staff said “Most substance use and mental health areas have shown progress in a favorable direction.”

Per the 2024 results, students are reporting that it is taking them less time to recover from stressful situations, that they feel safe and supported at school and have more identified trusted adults, that they are continuing to be involved in sports and extracurricular activities, and are vaping nicotine products significantly less.

Additionally, growing percentages of students are reporting having trusted adults and being engaged in “pro-social activities” like sports and extracurriculars.

Vaping is an example of an area where the district and community partners — including Eagle County Public Health — have focused efforts and seen a positive trend. District staff reports it as one of the greatest wins in the data.

A screenshot of Mountain Youth’s presentation on the 2024 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey results showing student-reported substance use over the 30 days prior to taking the survey. One of the most positive trends the survey has seen is in vaping.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy Photo

Over the past six years and three survey administrations, the number of high schoolers reporting vaping in the past 30 days has dropped from 39% to 10%. While the question wasn’t asked of middle schoolers until the 2019 survey, this number dropped from 8% to 3%.

This decline, Whelan noted can be attributed to educational and local nicotine policy efforts, taxation on nicotine and increasing purchase age. Now, looking forward, the focus of these efforts will be on figuring out how to break the addiction for students who are vaping.

“We’ve got a smaller number of students that are using products, but they are much more likely to be students that are not experimenting so much, but they’re truly addicted to nicotine,” Whelan said. “It’s more important to figure out how to help kids break the addiction and find all of the supports that would go in line with that.”

Even though the data shows many positive trends, the district and partners don’t want to take their foot off the gas.

“Just because things are going well in those areas, we cannot stop allocating resources and prioritizing those areas in schools, with nonprofits and at home,” Hartel said. “Even though a lot of those areas are looking better, we still tend to have a little bit higher risk in mental health and substance use than the statewide numbers.”

There are still areas of concern, including students reporting drinking alcohol at a younger age as well as students continuing to report feelings of helplessness and other mental health indicators.  

A screenshot of Mountain Youth’s presentation on the 2024 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey results showing the age at which students are initiating use. The survey results have shown an increase in students using alcohol at a younger age.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy Photo

So while the numbers show “we’re doing a little bit better,” it will be critical for the district and nonprofits “to keep the focus and keep working together with families and as community partners to have strong, safe, and healthy environments for kids,” Hartel added.

For the district’s part, it is “constantly tweaking the recipe to make sure that we’re meeting the needs and we’re effective in our strategies to meet student needs and also celebrate those successes that we’re having, too,” Eves said.

Areas of concern

With a focus on continuing positive growth in those areas, the survey data also shows some negative or concerning trends. This includes concerns around nutrition, use of devices — including while driving, with texting and driving reports rising — as well as discrepancies between demographics.

For example, Rewold-Thuon said there is a big discrepancy in physical activity. 

“We live in a pretty active community. And when we look at it and segregate it by certain demographic groups, there’s a concern that some students are not getting any significant physical activity on a daily basis,” she said. “The biggest group that we’re concerned about would be our Latinx females, who are not getting daily, vigorous activity of any sort.”

Another area of concern — and where there are demographic gaps — is around consent. Rewold-Thuon said the district has continued to adapt its maturation and sexual health courses to incorporate consent after survey data over the past few administrations demonstrated that “students were unsure if they had given consent in sexual encounters or not, or had felt that they had been asked to give consent.”

Eves added that some populations showed higher percentages of this as well.

“We started to gather some more specific data. The last administration was diving a little bit further into some pretty alarming statistics around consent, so we’re trying to be really explicit in what we’re providing, especially to our high schoolers,” Eves said.

Looking at other areas in need of attention, Rewold-Thuon said, “The amount of time spent on devices continues to be an area of concern outside of educational use.”

This includes use while driving. In the 2024 survey, 44% of students reported texting and driving — an increase from 27% in 2021 — the schools have honed in on driving safety with events like the Safe Driving Fairs as well as engaging with families. Still, it’s an area that needs attention, reported Eves and Whelan.

As part of efforts to address cell phone usage, the Board of Education will review a new district-wide policy for the devices at its Wednesday, June 12 meeting.  

One other growing area of concern is nutrition. While the district now offers free breakfast and lunch for all students, 11% of high school students reported in this year’s survey that they have been hungry in the last 30 days due to not having enough food at home.

In prior years, looking at Healthy Kids with its breakfast participation numbers, the district found that 68% of its high school students were not eating breakfast. As such, it rolled out a “grab-and-grow breakfast” at its high schools. However, it is still working to increase participation in these programs, because of the important role nutrition plays in education.

Whelan added that “one of the scary trends” the survey had shown was a dramatic decrease in the number of students reporting that they’d eaten a piece of fruit in the prior seven days. This had been dropping steadily for high schoolers to a low of 38% in 2021 but jumped back up to 50% in 2024 (56% of middle schoolers reported having fruit this year compared to 51% in 2021).

“We would like to see that trending in a more positive direction where we know that kids are eating healthier foods because that also leads to their overall health and well-being and their ability to concentrate on school,” Rewold-Thuon said.

Smart Survey

While the Eagle County School District relies on Healthy Kids Colorado, it is using a variety of other tools to find concerns and address student needs.

One of these is Smart Source, a tool to evaluate how it is doing on health and wellness on a “whole school, whole community, whole child model,” Whelan said.

Similar to Healthy Kids, Smart Survey is coordinated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. However, it relies on information from in-school “experts” — including nurses, physical education teachers, cafeteria managers, etc. — to craft the qualitative results.

Alongside Healthy Kids, this “helps us know where to put our energy and where some of those routes are for us to work on,” Rewold-Thuon said.





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