US Surgeon General Warns Parents of National Youth Mental Health Crisis

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is sounding the alarm on a youth mental health crisis.

A public health advisory from his office details how the pandemic has disrupted the lives of children, teens and young adults, causing them anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

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According to the advisory’s report, 25% of youth experienced depression while 20% experienced anxiety during the pandemic.The report also shows a 51% increase in suicide attempts among girls compared to the 4% increase for boys. Most children included in the report have also lost a loved one to COVID-19.

“Girls are typically a bit more social than boys,” said Judith Allen, the clinical director and COO of Communities In Schools of Chicago. “Girls are able to connect with others. You’ll walk into a middle school and find a group of girls crying next to a set of locker rooms every Tuesday. It’s that part of socialization and networking that girls have. Whereas boys tend to be [timid]. They tend to keep those emotions inside. So, girls are acting out more externally than internally. If girls are feeling disconnected alone, the escalation of social media as their only outlet, that can be a dangerous mix.”

Specialists and therapists are asking parents not rely on social media to include regulations such as a feature that allows youth to take social media breaks. They are asking parents to consider regulating their children’s content.

“We need more studies to understand the [link between social media and children’s mental health],” said Dr. Aron Janssen, vice chair at Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. “What we hear from kids is that there is a connectivity and helpfulness to some of the aspects of social media. But on the flip side, there’s this disconnection of constantly having to be on the [platform]. As clinicians, we need to educate parents on setting safe and appropriate guidelines, so that we are monitoring [content].”

Janssen says youth shouldn’t have to navigate the complexities involved in finding the right mental health care centers, in terms of having the funds for therapy services and finding the right therapist or specialist.

He also said that youth of color are experiencing mental issues linked to anxiety and depression at a high rate.

“There are a number of groups that have experienced particular challenges [surrounding mental health], including LGBTQ and Black youth. We have seen increased rates of suicide [in these groups] over the last several years, and we don’t always have a great explanation for why this is because we need money to do research,” Janssen said. “We need more support, and we need more clinicians who are drawn from multiple communities, who can meet the needs, as they stand.”

While mental health specialists are trying to keep up with the demand from youth seeking mental health care, they ask parents to look out for key warning signs that their children might be experiencing depression and anxiety. 

Janssen and Allen said to look for changes in personality, irritability or despondency in their environment and disruptions in sleep patterns.

If someone meets these criteria, it’s advised to open a dialog about feelings of depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide to help work through their concerns and challenges.

If you know someone who is exhibiting any of the symptoms above, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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