In a new Surgeon General’s Advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is calling for immediate action to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.
The advisory discussed findings from recent national surveys that showed alarming increases in the prevalence of mental health challenges in children and teens. In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported prolonged periods of sadness and hopelessness — a 40% increase from 2009. In addition, the share of those students seriously considering suicide increased by 36%; the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%: and suicide rates among youth ages 10 to 24 years increased by 57%.
Many causes for mental health conditions
Many mental health conditions are caused by biological factors like genes and brain chemistry, the Advisory states. But environmental factors like life experiences such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), exposure to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy, birth complications and living in under-resourced or racially-segregated neighborhoods can cause children and teens to develop mental health challenges. Biological and environmental factors may also be interrelated, with biological predispositions to mental health disorders causing children to be more affected by environmental factors.
According to the scientists involved in these studies, these upward trends may be due to young people becoming more willing to openly discuss mental health concerns. But other researchers point to growing use of media, more academic and social pressures, limited access to mental health care, alcohol and drug abuse and national and global stressors like financial crises, rising income inequality, racism, gun violence and climate change.
Pandemic causes drastic changes in the lives of youth
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused even more unprecedented challenges for children, adolescents and young adults. It dramatically changed multiple aspects of their lives: how they attend school; how they are able to connect with their friends and family; they may have lost a family member to COVID-19; they may have gotten COVID-19 themselves; or their family may have lost income, access to mental health care, social services, food or housing. Since the pandemic began, rates of psychological distress, like anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders have further increased.
Although the pandemic’s long-term impact on children and young people will have to be researched for years to come, researchers are optimistic that the increased mental health symptoms we’re seeing today match what we have previously seen during national or global disasters. Over 50 years of research has shown that most kids and teens will be able to cope over time and not go on to develop mental health disorders.
But the advisory urges action to be taken now to support our youth during this mental health crisis. Parents, educators, health care providers and community organizations can be equipped with the tools to help youth cope with this disruption and stay connected to others.
How health care providers can help curb rising mental health challenges
The Advisory states that health care professionals and organizations must reimagine how they prevent, identify and address mental health challenges. Here are the steps that they suggest for health care providers:
- The best treatment of mental health challenges is prevention. Implement informed care principles and other preventions strategies to improve care for all youth — especially those with a history of adversity.
- Routinely screen children for mental health challenges, risk factors and ACEs in primary care clinics and emergency departments.
- Identify and address the mental health needs of parents, caregivers and other family members. Since the mental health of children and youth is closely tied to that of their families, it is important to identify the needs of the family entirely.
- Combine the efforts of clinical staff with those of trusted community partners and child-serving systems like welfare or juvenile justice systems.
- Build multidisciplinary teams to implement services tailored to the needs of children and their families, while making sure to support the wellbeing of mental health workers and community leaders.
For more about CHOC’s pediatric mental health services