Students in Manhattan and Belgrade are generally making lifestyle and behavioral choices similar to those of their peers in Gallatin County and around the state, according to figures released by the Montana Office of Public Instruction this week.

In a prepared statement accompanying the release of the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elise Arntzen said, “I am encouraged that in many areas of life, more Montana students are making healthy and safe decisions. “

However, said OPI spokesman Dylan Klapmeier, the results of the survey also identified areas in which students are struggling or making poor choices, particularly in the areas of safety, mental health and nutrition. Arntzen said “this report confirms a strong need to promote mental health. These supports must begin early, especially in middle school.”

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is conducted every two years in Montana to help educators determine the prevalence of health-risk behaviors as self-reported by Montana middle school and high school students. The areas of focus are behaviors that result in unintended and intentional injury, and include tobacco use, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual activity, physical inactivity and diet.

Klapmeier said the OPI compares data between the surveys taken every 10 years in order to identify trends more clearly than comparative analyses done more frequently.

The 2019 survey indicates that fewer Montana students are engaging in some risky driving behaviors – e.g,, 19 percent reported riding with a driver who had been drinking alcohol in the 2019 survey, compared with 29 percent 10 years ago -- and fewer Montana kids also reported smoking cigarettes and cigars (31 percent of high school students said they had tried such products in 2019, while 50 percent said they had in 2009).

In terms of risky traffic behavior, however, the number of teen drivers who reported using their phones behind the wheel was alarming. Statewide, approximately 8 percent admitted to texting and using other apps on their phones every day while driving, and a significant percentage reported doing the same on fewer days per month.

While the number of students smoking cigarettes and cigars has decreased, a significant increase in the numbers using electronic vapor products has occurred in just the past couple of years. Fifty-eight percent of students statewide reported ever using an electronic vapor product, compared to 47 percent in 2017, and 30 percent are currently vaping, compared to 23 percent two years ago.

Improvements reported over 10 years ago in the areas of alcohol and other drug use. Thirty-three percent of students in 2019 reported having a drink of 

alcohol during the prior 30 days, compared to 43 percent in 2009. Decreased rates of dangerous drug use (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, synthetic marijuana, steroids and injectable illegal drugs) also dropped.

The middle school report shows that 14 percent of students drank alcohol during the past 30 days, 9 percent currently use marijuana, and 10 percent had taken a prescription pain medicine without a doctor’s prescription in their lifetimes.

Fewer students in 2019 than 2009 reported engaging in sexual behaviors related to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Among sexually active students, IUD use increased from 7 percent to 12 percent; however, condom use decreased from 68 percent to 56 percent.

Fourteen percent of middle school students reported having sexual intercourse in their lifetimes; 5 percent reported that they are currently sexually active.

The survey revealed behaviors that affect the increasing rates of Montana high school students who are overweight (13 percent) and obese (12 percent), according to OPI. Nutritional behaviors reported indicate that 34 percent of students did not eat a green salad in the week prior to the survey, compared to 29 percent in 2009, and the percent of students who ate any vegetable one or more times a day during the prior week decreased from 66 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2019. Fourteen percent of students reported that they had not eaten breakfast on any of the seven days prior to the survey.

Students also reported more sedentary behaviors across Montana; 37 percent of students played video or computer games for three or more hours per day on an average school day, compared to 18 percent in 2009.

However, 51 percent of high school students reported being physically active at least 60 minutes per day on five or more of the prior seven days.

A primary area of concern emerged statewide from the survey: Montana students increasingly reported more mental health concerns and suicide ideation than they did 10 years ago. Thirty-seven percent reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more in a row, 10 percent more than in 2009. Twenty percent of high school students made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, compared to 13 percent in 2009, and 10 percent actually attempted suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey, compared to 7 percent in 2011.

Thirty-one percent of middle school students reported sad or hopeless feelings, 19 percent planned suicide, and 16 percent actually attempted suicide during the past year, according to the report. 

Manhattan High School Principal Jason Slater said he believes that some of the increase in self-reporting of mental health problems may be attributed to increased awareness.

“Our teachers, students, and parents are more informed about these topics today,” Slater said. “Generally speaking you are more likely to report something that you are informed about.”

Conversely, Slater said he believes the numbers of students reporting that they had ever tried vaping products (47.3 percent in Manhattan, 51 percent in Gallatin County, and 58.3 percent statewide) may be understated.

“As a parent and an education leader, it’s probably on the conservative side,” he said. “I believe (vaping) is way higher than that.”

Likening advertising for electronic vape products to “the new Marlboro man of this generation,” Slater said that regardless of what the true numbers are, the high reported use of vaping is understandable.

“I don’t know how that’s a surprise to anybody,” he said.

In general, Slater said risky behaviors reported by Manhattan’s students are a little lower than those reported across Gallatin County, which “makes sense” given that Manhattan is a small district.

In Manhattan, 27.6 percent of students reported feeling sad or hopeless, compared to 36.8 percent in Gallatin County and 36.7 percent statewide; 31 percent reported having consumed alcohol in the prior 30 days, compared to 36 percent in the county and 33.4 percent in Montana; 20 percent said they had been offered drugs at school, compared to 27 percent in Gallatin County and 22.5 percent across Montana; and 33.7 percent reported ever having sex, compared to 41 percent in Gallatin County and 43.8 percent in Montana.

Belgrade schools Superintendent Godfrey Saunders did not share district-specific figures with the Belgrade News, but said he and other district officials were scheduled to review the numbers Wednesday afternoon, and a report will be prepared for the School Board.

“I have looked at our numbers, and nothing (alarming) is jumping out at me,” he said Wednesday.

Like the other educators, Saunders said he is encouraged that fewer students in Montana are using traditional tobacco products, but concerned about the increase in vaping. And he said the most concerning statistics to him were about students considering suicide.

“Anytime you have even one kid thinking about suicide, that’s an issue,” he said. “We’d like to see that at zero.”

Because the risk assessment is taken only every two years, Saunders, as interim superintendent, said he isn’t familiar with exactly how the district has used the survey data programmatically in the past. He said the results of the 2019 survey will be reviewed internally and with the school board to see if any action at the district level will be warranted.

Overall, Saunders said he was not alarmed by the reports.

“It seems like Montana kids are doing pretty well,” he said.

According to OPI, the weighted results of the survey can be used to make inferences about the health-risk behaviors of all high school students in Montana; however, it cautions that care should be taken when using the data, because respondents in self-reported surveys may have a tendency to underreport behaviors that are socially undesirable, unhealthy or illegal. OPI estimates the approximate error rate of the results at plus or minus 3 percent.

Statewide and county results of the 2019 YRBS are available at