U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory calling for swift action to respond to a growing mental health crisis among youth that has worsened due to stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy wrote in the introduction to the new advisory, released on Tuesday and titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health.” “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”
Research and data point to the mental health challenges youth have been facing even before the pandemic. The percentage of adolescents ages 12 to 17 who had a major depressive episode in the past year, for instance, increased from an estimated 8% in 2010 to 15.7% in 2019, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And the percentage of high school students who seriously contemplated suicide increased from 13.8% in 2009 to 18.8% in 2019, according to an October 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Murthy’s advisory, meanwhile, cites early estimates that suggest more than 6,600 deaths by suicide occurred among the 10-24 age group in 2020.
Concerns about youth mental health have only increased during the pandemic, as months of social isolation, school closures and other pandemic-related difficulties are believed to have fueled increased levels of anxiety and depression. The advisory cites research indicating a quarter of youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depressive symptoms, while 20% are experiencing clinically elevated symptoms of anxiety.
Among the advisory’s recommendations to improve youth mental health are calls to expand access to behavioral and mental health care services for children, including through telehealth and expanding the school-based mental health workforce. The advocacy organization Mental Health America estimates less than 30% of the more than 2 million children in the U.S. who suffer from severe depression receive consistent mental health treatment.
In response to the advisory’s release, Mental Health America President and CEO Schroeder Stribling lauded Murthy for raising awareness about the problem with youth mental health, and said increased funding should be directed toward supporting prevention and early intervention strategies and improving mental health care services in community settings like schools and pediatric medical practices.
“At the same time, the administration and Congress must also work to address the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health, including child poverty, early childhood education, access to healthy food, affordable health care, stable housing, and safe neighborhoods,” Stribling said in a statement. “We must not wait to take action. Our youth need help now.”