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Surgeon General sounds alarm on mental health in young people during pandemic

A report called the rising levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation a potential crisis.

The U.S. Surgeon General has issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory to raise awareness of mental health impacts on youth in the country during the pandemic and other potential environmental and societal influences.

“The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered young peoples’ experiences at home, at school, and in the community. The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in his advisory statement. “It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.”

In a 53-page report on the issue, several data points were cited to indicate the rising threat of adverse mental health among youth.

According to the report, from 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%.

Between 2011 and 2015, youth psychiatric visits to emergency departments for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges increased by 28%. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the US increased by 57%.

Early estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest there were tragically more than 6,600 deaths by suicide among the 10-24 age group in 2020.

The report suggests the COVID-19 pandemic has had a host of potential adverse mental health influences including disruptions in routine and social isolation, trauma from losing a family member or caregiver to COVID-19, elevated risk of burnout, financial instability, food shortages, housing instability and many other potential factors.

“During the pandemic, young people also experienced other challenges that may have affected their mental and emotional well-being: the national reckoning over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers, including the murder of George Floyd; COVID-related violence against Asian Americans; gun violence; an increasingly polarized political dialogue; growing concerns about climate change; and emotionally-charged misinformation,” The report read.

The report also outlined potentially higher risk groups and demographics such including: American Indian and Alaska Native youth, many of whom faced challenges staying connected with friends and attending school due to limited internet access; Black youth, who were more likely than other youth to lose a parent or caregiver to COVID-19; Latino youth, who reported high rates of loneliness and poor or decreased mental health during the pandemic; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander youth, who reported increased stress due to COVID-19-related hate and harassment; LGBTQ+ youth, who lost access to school-based services and were sometimes confined to homes where they were not supported or accepted; Youth in immigrant households, who faced language and technology barriers to accessing health care services and education; and others.

The advisory document also makes recommendations to youth experiencing adverse mental health conditions. They urge youth to remember that mental health challenges are real, common, and treatable, ask for help, invest in healthy relationships, find ways to serve, take care of their body and mind, to be intentional about their use of social media, video games, and other technologies and to be a source of support for others.

If in crisis, get immediate help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


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