LOS ANGELES – Citing growing evidence of persistent damage, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Tuesday released a public health advisory on the mental health challenges facing young people, a rare warning and a call to action for dealing with what he called an emerging crisis exacerbated by a difficult pandemic.
Symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of young people showing symptoms of depression and 20% showing symptoms of anxiety, according to Murthy’s 53-page opinion. There also appears to be an increase in negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability – associated with conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD.
And, at the start of 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for teenage girls and 4% higher for teenage boys compared to the same period in early 2019, according to the report. the research cited in the opinion.
“It would be a tragedy if we pushed back one public health crisis only to allow another to develop in its place,” Murthy said in a preface to the opinion. âMental health problems in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread. But more importantly, they’re treatable and often preventable.
Even before the pandemic, children from all walks of life faced serious mental health challenges, Murthy said. But nearly two years of disruption has taken its toll and worsened their mental health, especially for groups such as immigrants, students with disabilities and students of color from low-income families.
At the same time, safety measures related to the pandemic have reduced in-person interactions between children, friends, social supports, and professionals such as teachers, school counselors, pediatricians and protection workers. childhood. This isolation has made it “more difficult to recognize signs of child abuse, mental health issues and other challenges,” the advisory said.
“This is unprecedented, the amount of trauma our students experience on a large scale,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Assn. school counselors.
The surgeon general’s advice calls for a broad and swift response from government, social media companies, community groups, schools, teachers, parents and even students – and the listed resources available to them.
Murthy posted his review the day after a quick visit to King / Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, a high-performance campus that is comparatively well staffed for mental health support and is adjacent to a regional medical center and a medical center. school in the Willowbrook area south of Los Angeles.
But even here the students struggle, said Jesus El, a 17-year-old. Despite the concerted efforts of teachers, many students withdrew after campus closures and e-learning in Zoom format.
âFor most of my classes, there were just names in a box – no mics on, no cameras, no cats,â Jesus said. “Unless the professor said, ‘Say yes, if you’re still around,’ it was just a ghost town, sort of. “
And students also have difficulty adjusting to resuming in-person schooling.
âA lot of people still feel like everything is virtual, as if they act like we can’t see or hear what they are saying,â Jesus said. âA lot of students were less motivated to come to school, you know, miss school more. I notice that many more students are starting to drop out of class and take long restroom breaks.
This fall, Jesus was part of an effort to start a school mental health club, which helps students understand when and where to seek help, and to de-stigmatize the experience. This is the kind of model initiated by young people cited in the opinion.
In an interview, Murthy stressed the importance for friends, parents and teachers to be alert to changes in mood, behavior and interests. He noted that mental health symptoms in young people often become evident 10 years before they begin to be treated.
Murthy also highlighted the role institutions play in creating accessible and seamless mental health support and noted that pandemic aid – billions of dollars went to LA Unified alone – is meant to be. target mental health.
The national average workload for school counselors remains high, with 424 students per counselor for the 2019-2020 school year. Professional guidelines recommend a ratio of 250 students per advisor.
Historically, the problem has been the lack of money to hire advisors. For now, the money is there, but the professionals are not. The advisory recommends that the government – at the local, tribal, state and federal level – invest in a pipeline for counselors, nurses, social workers and school psychologists.
Daniel Eisenberg, professor of health management policy at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, said he agrees with the advice’s holistic approach to tackling issues that arise. were worsened long before the pandemic.
âThis is an issue that really requires long-term investment from all of the stakeholders mentioned in the notice, from all of our companyâ¦ for years and decades to come,â said Eisenberg.
One positive sign is that âyoung people are very knowledgeable and energized about mental health as a problem,â Eisenberg said.
The surgeon general has limited direct power, but traditionally speaks with medical expertise as the voice of the executive – a role that can be amplified by the individual in the office and the issues that person takes care of. The surgeon general’s warning about tobacco products is a well-known example.
Murtry is on his second tour of duty. He was also general surgeon from 2014 to 2017, appointed by President Barack Obama. The latter opinion is his second during the Biden administration. Its first signaled the “urgent threat” of medical disinformation, calling on tech and social media companies to act more responsibly.
Murthy said there is a connection between the two opinions because misinformation can amplify polarization, “and it actually creates a really stressful environment.”
“I learned from my own small children – they are very sensitive to disagreements around them, whether their parents are arguing or other people are arguing.”
Some of the recommendations seem ambitious, such as asking tech companies to step up, said Robin H. Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center. But aiming high is better than settling for the status quo, she said.
âI really believe that this advice instills hope and, at the very least, gives hope that things can improve. Often times right now with COVID, mental health has taken so many hits. With the advice, she said, there is hope that “we can start to shed light on the issues and really move forward productively.”