The Hidden Epidemic: the Surgeon General Sounds Alarms for the Mental Health Crisis Affecting Youth

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“Our obligation to act is not just medical– it’s moral.” Last month, December of 2021, the United States surgeon general published a 53 page report on the “devastating” mental health crisis affecting the nation’s youngest population as a result of challenges faced by their generation, such as the coronavirus pandemic. The advisory details “how we can all work together to step up for our children during this dual crisis.” The country’s leading physician Dr. Vivek H. Murthy implied that the pandemic had intensified mental health problems in young people that were already rampant prior to the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020.

The crisis by the numbers

The report cited increases in self-reports of depression and anxiety as well as a jump in emergency room visits for mental health concerns. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health struggles were the leading cause of disability and poor quality of outcomes in children and adolescents, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. reporting a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. Since the pandemic, emergency room visits for attempted suicide was 51 percent higher for teenage girls in early 2021 relative to the same period in 2019. The figure increased 4 percent for boys. Surgeon General Murthy emphasized in his report that “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread” and that they have been manifesting for nearly a decade. “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide” said Dr. Murthy.

The cause

“Young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth — telling them they are not good-looking enough, popular enough, smart enough or rich enough,” Dr. Murthy wrote. “That comes as progress on legitimate, and distressing, issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic and gun violence feels too slow.” Couple these anxieties with the pandemic that “altered [children’s] experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating.”

Actionable steps

The advisory calls for an immediate and systematic response to the crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on. The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health provides recommendations to improve youth mental health across eleven areas, including at the individual and familial levels, to educators, schools, and healthcare establishments, and even media and entertainment companies. The outline includes the following:

  • Recognize that mental health is just as vital as physical health.  
  • Empower youth and their loved ones to take charge of and cope with difficult situations and emotions.  
  • Establish high-quality, affordable, and culturally attuned mental health care for every child. 
  • Support the mental health of children and youth in educational and extracurricular settings. Expand the early childhood and education workforce.  
  • Identify and address both the economic and social barriers that play a part in the poor mental health of young people.
  • Increase data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health crises faster. Dive deeper into the relationship between technology and mental health, and encourage technology companies to be more transparent with their data collection and algorithmic processes to enable this research.

Ultimately, the report assures that “This is a moment to demand change.” The Chase Bjork Foundation’s Brain Health Bootcamp is here to instigate it. The BHB is an online program for students, parents, and school communities to learn about brain health: what it is, how to talk about it, and how to get help. 

Visit our website to learn about how the program and its resources could help your school today (it’s free and easy to rollout the bootcamp).

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