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A new survey of Montana teenagers shows an increase in high school students who report feelings of depression and who have attempted suicide.

The Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every two years by the Office of Public Instruction at public high schools statewide, asks students to voluntarily answer questions in four different categories: drug use, sex, nutrition and mental health.

The test is administered across the country through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said overall, the survey provides a snapshot of what students' attitudes and behaviors are toward certain types of risky behavior, and helps her department work on changes that create safer environments at schools.

In Montana, the survey noted an increase in the number of teens who said they had feelings of depression, up to 29.3 percent from 26.5 percent when the survey was conducted in 2013.

The percentage who had seriously considered attempting suicide also rose 2 points to 18.8 percent, with 8.9 percent of students saying they had attempted suicide as least once in the past year.

Of the Montana teens surveyed, 18.5 percent reported having been bullied on electronic outlets like social media, text messaging and email, with 25.3 percent saying they had been bullied while at school.

“I think we are living in a very fast-moving society. People are dealing with a whole lot of things we haven’t had to deal with in the past,” Juneau said.

OPI has been moving more into the field of mental health services in recent years, Juneau said, understanding the connection between mental health and academic performance.

One new initiative, approved by the 2015 Legislature, will provide suicide awareness and prevention training at schools.

OPI has developed training materials and other resources that schools across the state can use, Juneau said.

“We know that schools are having to expand the roles that they have in students' lives all the time. There are sometimes life-and-death situations that adults in their lives have to have a basic understanding of,” she said.

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While the percentage of students who smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products has continued to decline, the survey found that just over 51 percent of teens reported having tried an electronic cigarette or other vapor smoke product.

“I think we kind of understood about the increase in e-cigarettes, but I don’t think we knew the rate of use was that high,” Juneau said.

The 2015 Legislature passed a bill that would ban the sale of electronic cigarette-type products to people under the age of 18 starting in 2016. Juneau said about 70 percent of Montana schools have banned electronic cigarette products on school grounds, and more schools are moving toward such bans.

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The survey also found an increase in teens who were classified as overweight, now at 15 percent. More than 34 percent of students reported playing video games or using the computer for non-school work for three or more hours a day, up from 29.7 percent in 2013.

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One way OPI is responding to data from the survey is by updating the state’s health enhancement and physical education standards.

A negotiated rulemaking committee is meeting to suggest improvements to the standards, which haven’t been changed since 1999. Juneau said part of the changes should be to focus more on the social and emotional health of students.

The committee’s recommendations will go to the state Board of Education for approval. The content standards are a set of guidelines and are not specific curriculum, which is left up to individual school districts.

On the positive side, the survey showed a decrease between 2013 and 2015 in the percentage of students who avoided school because they felt unsafe there, and also in those who reported binge drinking or who had tried injection drugs, ecstasy or inhalants.

The full survey results are available online at the Office of Public Instruction's website, opi.mt.gov.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.