Just over half of female students in Ontario are showing the signs of moderate to serious psychological distress, with many mentioning having serious depression and anxiety, and others revealing they rarely talk to their parents about their problems.

Those are just some of the findings from today's release of the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), an annual survey administered over the last 40 years by CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

This year, the survey polled more than 11,400 students in Grades 7 through 12, asking them a variety of questions about their mental health and substance use.

The survey found that "psychological distress" – meaning symptoms of anxiety or depression – has been rising steadily among all Ontario students since the survey began monitoring such distress in 2013.

Girls in particular seem to fare badly on distress and other mental health measures, said Hayley Hamilton, the survey's co-lead and a senior scientist in CAMH's Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.

"Female students are more than twice as likely as males to report elevated stress, poor mental health, seeking mental health counselling, thoughts of suicide, and being prescribed medication for anxiety or depression," Hamilton said in a statement.

Approximately 17 per cent of those surveyed said they had experienced a serious level of psychological distress in the last year. That works out to approximately 159,400 students in Ontario. Another 39 per cent said they had moderate to serious levels of distress.

About one-third of high school students—or about 252,100 students – reported having experienced a traumatic or a negative event in their lifetime, without being specific.

One in seven students had had serious thoughts about suicide in the past year, and four per cent reported they had attempted suicide. The percentage of students reporting suicidal ideation has been stable in recent years, with no change over time in the percentage reporting a suicide attempt.

Seeking mental health care

One in four students had visited a medical professional for a mental health issue over the past year -- a figure that has remained stable from past surveys. Five per cent of those students were prescribed a medication for anxiety, depression, or both.

Still, nearly one-third said they wanted to talk to someone about their mental health, but did not know where to turn. Almost four in 10 said that they rarely or never talk to their parents about their problems or feelings, with boys being significantly less likely to turn to their parents for support.

Technology and social media use

The survey found that technology and social media use have increased in recent years, with many reporting mental health problems related to their use.

A full 86 per cent of students reported that they visited social media sites daily, with only seven per cent of students saying they don't use social media at all.

One in five said they spend five hours or more on social media daily – a percentage that was significantly higher in 2017 than in 2015 (16 per cent) and 2013 (11 per cent), the first year of monitoring. Girls were almost twice as likely to spend more hours a day on social media compared to boys.

Almost one-third of high school students spend five hours or more per day on all devices, including gaming consoles, laptops, computers, and smartphones. Approximately 23 per cent said they played video games daily or almost daily, with a significantly higher proportion of boys playing daily than girls.

This year's survey included questions about problems with technology use for the first time, and found that five per cent of students reported they had symptoms suggesting they had a serious problem. Many reported feeling preoccupied with technology, a loss of control, withdrawal symptoms, and problems with family and friends.

CAMH Senior Scientist Robert Mann, co-lead of the survey, found these latest findings worrying.

"While the survey can't tell us whether technology use causes mental health issues, or vice versa, there is some evidence from other studies that there may be a link," he said in a statement.

Another area of worry is the use of cellphones and other technology during driving. Among those students who drive, a full third reported that they text and drive -- a figure that has not changed since 2015, despite several public awareness campaigns.

Positive trends

Among some of the positive findings of the survey was a significant decline in violent behavior, physical fighting, and weapon use at school.

As well, while 21 per cent of students reported they had experience bullying at school, that percentage has dropped from 33 per cent in 2003. The reported rate of cyberbullying, meanwhile, remains steady, at 21 per cent.

And finally, the majority of students – 81 per cent – reported that they liked school to some degree. Almost half (47 per cent) said they like school very much or quite a lot, while another 34 per cent like school to some degree.