The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already grave mental health crisis among youth, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said as he released a report yesterday calling for urgent action on what he called a “moral obligation.”

US Surgeon General Vivek H Murthy visiting the Montefiore addiction treatment center in New York in 2016. Photo: a katz, Shutterstock

“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread,” Murthy wrote in an introduction to the report. “But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.” (You can read the full text of his introduction here in the Guest Essays section of MindSite News.)

The pandemic triggered “alarming increases” in mental health conditions for young people, Murthy wrote, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, in 2019, one in three high school students experienced sadness or hopelessness so severe they couldn’t participate in regular activities, a 40% increase since 2009.

The growing malaise was also evident in a sharp increase in emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent girls, which rose 51% from 2019 to 2021, the report noted. Increased unemployment and income loss during the pandemic took an especially heavy toll on the mental health of immigrant children, young people with disabilities and children of color from poorer families, the report also found.

Repeated lockdowns designed to curb the spread of the virus also meant that many youths’ social networks collapsed, according to Murthy. Children and teens, he pointed out, were cut off from friends who could have provided social support and from seeing pediatricians who might detect mental health issues. They were also isolated from adults outside the home, such as teachers, who could have been lifelines for children affected by the uptick in domestic abuse during this period. 

While young people were cut off from networks that could have helped them flourish, more time spent on social media exacerbated underlying mental health challenges, the report reported. “Young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth,” Murthy wrote.

The report follows calls for action around “a national emergency” in adolescent mental health issued in October by U.S. medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Murthy is on his second round of service as Surgeon General, having served in that position from 2014 to 2017 under President Barack Obama.

The 53-page advisory calls for a swift and coordinated response from government, schools, social media companies and parents. But it also recognizes the shortage of school-based mental health providers to meet the need and recommends using federal, state and local funds “to hire and train additional staff, such as school counselors, nurses, social workers, and school psychologists.

The report drew praise from researchers and advocates.

“This is an issue that really requires a long-term investment from all the stakeholders mentioned in the advisory, our entire society … for years and decades to come,” Daniel Eisenberg, a professor of health policy of management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told the Los Angeles Times. He noted as a positive sign that “young people are very knowledgeable and energized about mental health as an issue.”

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Laurie Udesky reports on mental health, social welfare, health equity and public policy issues from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.