Surgeon general warns of looming youth mental health crisis

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, issued a public health advisory Dec. 7 on the challenges confronting American youth, warning about the effect these challenges have had on their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders among young people have increased since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Dr. Murthy's 53-page advisory, which cites recent research covering 80,000 youth globally. The research found that symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youth experiencing symptoms of depression and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms.

"It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place. That's why I am issuing this surgeon general's advisory," Dr. Murthy said in the advisory's introduction. "Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable and often preventable."

Dr. Murthy's advisory also noted impulsivity and irritability — associated with conditions such as ADHD — appear to have moderately increased.

And, early this year, emergency department visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls and 4 percent for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019, according to the advisory. 

"Moreover, pandemic-related measures reduced in-person interactions among children, friends, social supports and professionals such as teachers, school counselors, pediatricians and child welfare workers," the advisory states. "This made it harder to recognize signs of child abuse, mental health concerns and other challenges."

To optimally support the mental health and well-being of children, Dr. Murthy recommended that healthcare organizations and health professionals implement trauma-informed care principles and other prevention strategies; screen for mental health challenges and risk factors routinely among children; and identify and address mental health needs of parents, caregivers and other family members, among other steps.

Dr. Murthy's advisory comes less than two months after the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children's Hospital Association declared what they called a national state of emergency in children's mental health.

Read the full advisory here

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