During the COVID-19 pandemic, depression and anxiety among young people has doubled with 25% of youth struggling with mental health issues, according to an advisory issued Dec. 7 by Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General.
“Recent national surveys of young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges — in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009,” Murthy wrote. “We know that mental health is shaped by many factors, from our genes and brain chemistry to our relationships with family and friends, neighborhood conditions, and larger social forces and policies. We also know that, too often, young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth — telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough. That comes as progress on legitimate and distressing issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence feels too slow.
“And while technology platforms have improved our lives in important ways, increasing our ability to build new communities, deliver resources and access information, we know that, for many people, they can also have adverse effects. When not deployed responsibly and safely, these tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve,” he added.
“All of that was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered young peoples’ experiences at home, at school, and in the community. The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.
Risk factors contributing to youth mental health issues include:
• Having mental health challenges before the pandemic;
• Living in an area with more severe COVID-19 outbreaks;
• Having parents or caregivers who were frontline workers;
• Having parents or caregivers at elevated risk of burnout (for example, due to parenting demands);
• Being worried about COVID-19;
• Experiencing disruptions in routine, such as not seeing friends or going to school in person;
• Experiencing more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, community violence and discrimination;
• Experiencing more financial instability, food shortages or housing instability;
• Experiencing trauma, such as losing a family member or caregiver to COVID-19.
The advisory offers tips for parents and caregivers:
• Be the best role model you can be for young people by taking care of your own mental and physical health.
• Help children and youth develop strong, safe and stable relationships with you and other supportive adults.
• Encourage children and youth to build healthy social relationships with peers.
• Do your best to provide children and youth with a supportive, stable and predictable home and neighborhood environment.
• Try to minimize negative influences and behaviors in young people’s lives.
• Ensure children and youth have regular check-ups with a pediatrician, family doctor or other health care professional.
• Look out for warning signs of distress and seek help when needed.
• Minimize children’s access to means of self-harm, including firearms and prescription medications.
• Be attentive to how children and youth spend time online.
Signs a teen is struggling with mental health issues may include:
• Trouble sleeping or changes in sleep patterns,
• Digestive problems,
• Weight loss or weight gain,
“As we learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and start recovering and rebuilding, we have an opportunity to offer a more comprehensive, more fulfilling, and more inclusive vision of what constitutes public health. And, for a generation of children facing unprecedented pressures and stresses, day in and day out, change can’t come soon enough,” the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory explains. “It won’t come overnight.
“But everyone has a role to play in combating this mental health pandemic. Without individual engagement, no amount of energy or resources can overcome the biggest barrier to mental health care: the stigma associated with seeking help. For too long, mental and emotional health has been considered, at best, the absence of disease, and at worst, a shame to be hidden and ignored.
“If we each start reorienting our priorities to create accessible space in our homes, schools, workplaces and communities for seeking and giving assistance, we can all start building a culture that normalizes and promotes mental health care.
“This is the moment to demand change—with our voices and with our actions.
“Only when we do will we be able to protect, strengthen, and support the health and safety of all children, adolescents and young adults—and ensure everyone has a platform to thrive.”