The Bangor School Department wants to know what it needs to do to improve student mental health. But first she needs data on the well-being of her students.
That’s why an advisory group is recommending that Bangor students for the first time take a statewide student health survey, which the Bangor School Department has long refused to participate in. An advisory group focused on student mental health made the recommendation Wednesday to the Bangor School Committee.
If the Bangor School Department gets the group on board with its recommendation to participate in the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, it would mark an about-face for Maine’s fourth-largest school district.
Bangor is one of about two dozen school districts in Maine whose students have traditionally not participated in the anonymous, biennial survey that asks students about a wide range of topics, including tobacco and drug use, drinking, sexual activity, exercise and diet, bullying and general health. The survey also asks students questions such as whether they have ever thought about suicide.
Bangor’s lack of participation has kept the school department from knowing the extent to which the behavior and health of the city’s students match those of students elsewhere in Maine.
When it comes to student mental health issues, the lack of information has made it difficult for school departments and mental health advisory groups to know what students may be dealing with and how to best help them.
“We realized that we don’t know what’s going on with our kids in terms of mental health,” said Dr. Clare Mundell, a school committee member and clinical psychologist who also serves on the advisory group.
Two years ago, the statewide survey showed that e-cigarette use by Maine students had doubled over two years, but there was no local data showing the extent to which Bangor students’ behavior matched the statewide numbers.
“If you look at the tobacco issue that we’re dealing with, every college kid that I work with is addicted to nicotine and it started in high school,” Mundell said. “The [Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey] would give us this data.”
According to 2019 survey results, approximately 28 percent of Penobscot County students reported consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in the past 30 days, and nearly 41 percent of Penobscot County students reported using electronic vaping products in a moment, according to the results of the 2019 survey.
About 16 percent of students in Penobscot County had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past month, 2019 survey results reported.
Bangor High School was the only high school in Greater Bangor whose students did not participate. Former Bangor Principal Betsy Webb said in 2019 that the school department relied on other sources of information to monitor student health and well-being.
While school committee members and department administrators are interested in offering the voluntary survey, school principals have questions about how it would be administered and how students can opt out of taking it, said department spokesman Ray Phinney. The school department wants to answer those questions before deciding whether to participate, he said.
There are four versions of the survey that make it suitable for students in kindergarten through high school, though Phinney said the Bangor School Department does not yet know what grades the survey will be given if Bangor chooses to take part.
Despite the lingering questions, Bangor Superintendent James Tager said he sees value in offering the survey because it would tell the department what students are facing and how to offer help.
“I think it’s important to do that, and we want to get reliable data,” Tager said. “If it helps the kids, I’ll support it.”
Tager said he wants students to be able to opt out of the survey because he worries that the students’ personal question could trigger any trauma, past or present. That concern, however, does not change the department’s willingness to participate, he said.
There is no evidence that simply asking students about health-risk behaviors will encourage them to try that behavior, according to the Maine departments of Education and Health and Human Services, which jointly administer the survey.