LOS ANGELES — Citing mounting evidence of ongoing harm, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Tuesday issued a public health advisory on the mental health challenges confronting youth, a rare warning and call to action to address what he called an emerging crisis exacerbated by pandemic hardships.
Symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms, according to Murthy’s 53-page advisory. There also appear to be increases in negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability — associated with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.
And, in early 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019, according to research cited in the advisory.
“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy said in a preface to the advisory. “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”
Even before the pandemic, children from all backgrounds faced serious mental health challenges, Murthy said. But nearly two years of disruption took a toll and worsened their mental health — especially for such groups as immigrants, students with disabilities and students of color from low-income families.
At the same time, pandemic-related safety measures reduced in-person interactions among children, friends, social supports and professionals such as teachers, school counselors, pediatricians and child welfare workers. This isolation made it “harder to recognize signs of child abuse, mental health concerns, and other challenges,” the advisory states.
“This is unprecedented, the amount of trauma that our students are experiencing on a mass scale,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Assn. of School Counselors.
A surgeon general’s advisory is a public statement intended to focus national attention to an urgent public health issue and provide recommendations for how it should be addressed. “Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that need the nation’s immediate awareness and action,” the document said.
The advisory calls for a broad-based and rapid response from government, social media companies, community groups, schools, teachers, parents and even students —and listed resources available to them.
Murthy issued his advisory the day after a quick visit to King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, a campus of high achievers that is, comparatively speaking, well-staffed for mental health support and is adjacent to a regional medical center and medical school in the Willowbrook area of South Los Angeles.
But even here, students have been struggling, said Jesus El, a 17-year-old senior. Despite concerted efforts from teachers, many students became disengaged after campuses shut down and learning moved online to the Zoom format.
“For most of my classes, it was just names in a box — no microphones being turned on, no cameras, no chat,” Jesus said. “Unless the teacher says: ‘Say yes, if you’re still here,’ it was just ghost town, kind of.”
And students also are having difficulties adjusting to the resumption of in-person schooling.
“A lot of people still feel like, everything is virtual, like, they act as if we can’t see or hear what they say,” Jesus said. “A lot of students have been less motivated to come to school, you know, miss school more. I’m noticing a lot more students start to leave class and take long bathroom breaks.”