U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on Sunday warned that the pandemic has had dire mental health impacts on American youth.
Speaking to CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union,” Murthy talked about the advisory he issued earlier this month about the urgent need to address the country’s youth mental health crisis, which existed before 2020 but has only been worsened by the ongoing pandemic that’s impacted nearly every aspect of childrens’ lives.
“I’m so concerned about our children because there is an epidemic, if you will, of mental health challenges that they’ve been facing, and it’s partly because of the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve seen, certainly, that many children have lost loved ones during this pandemic — 140,000 kids lost a caregiver. We know that their lives have been turned upside down. They haven’t been able to see friends as often as they would, and that’s taken a toll.”
Murthy said that his advisory outlined the pandemic’s impacts on the mental health of American youth and families, but also the mental health challenges that existed among these groups for years.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health struggles were the leading cause of disability in young people, with up to one in five children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than one in three students.
Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among American youth ages 10 to 24 increased from 6.8 to 10.7 per 100,000, and early estimates from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics suggest more than 6,600 people in the same age group died by suicide in 2020. Early clinical data from the CDC shows that in early 2021, emergency department visits in the U.S. 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.
In his advisory, Murthy noted that the pandemic’s negative impacts most heavily affect marginalized youth, such as disabled children, kids of color, LGBTQ youth, children who are either homeless or in low-income households, kids in rural areas, youth in immigrant households and children stuck in the juvenile justice system. Pandemic-related safety measures that reduced in-person interactions has also made it more difficult to recognize signs of child abuse, mental health concerns and other challenges.
The surgeon general said that the long-term implications of the pandemic on children are “still being written and it’s something we can shape actually by the actions that we take today.”
“You know, I think about this not just as surgeon general or as a doctor, but as a dad. You know, I have two small kids. They’re 5 and 3, and I’ve seen the impact of the pandemic, you know, on them. And parents across the country have as well,” he said. “In the days since our advisory was issued on youth mental health, I’ve heard from so many people around the country who have said, ‘I’ve been worried about my child. I’ve seen them struggling, what do I do?’ And the reason we issued this advisory is because there are steps we can take.”
The advisory included recommended actions for families, schools and governments, as well as health care providers and media and technology companies. Murthy stressed that one of the most important things parents can do is to help break down the stigma of mental health struggles, and reassure children that it’s OK to ask trusted adults for assistance.
Read HuffPost’s guide on what parents need to know about how to talk to children about mental health struggles and suicide.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.