Pandemic's impact on youth mental health 'devastating': Surgeon General

Dr. Vivek Murthy said addressing the issue is "not just medical, it's moral."

February 8, 2022, 4:22 PM

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told lawmakers on Tuesday that the pandemic has had a "devastating" impact on the mental health of America's young people.

"I'm deeply concerned as a parent and as a doctor that the obstacles this generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate and the impact that's having on their mental health is devastating," Murthy told the Senate Finance Committee.

Senators expressed bipartisan support for addressing mental health issues among young people, with chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, raising alarm over recent increases in suicide attempts among American youth.

PHOTO: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies on youth mental health care before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2022.
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies on youth mental health care before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2022.
Susan Walsh/AP

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that emergency department visits for suicide attempts among teen girls were up more than 50% at the beginning of the pandemic, compared to the same period in 2019.

"Millions of young Americans are struggling under a mental health epidemic, struggling in school, struggling with addiction or isolation, struggling to make it from one day to the next. Our country is in danger of losing much of a generation if mental health care remains business as usual," Wyden said. "And that means the Finance Committee has got to come up with solutions."

PHOTO: Sen. Debbie Stabenow greets Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy as he arrives for a Senate Finance Committee hearing about youth mental health on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2022.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow greets Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy as he arrives for a Senate Finance Committee hearing about youth mental health on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2022.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A main issue, Murthy said, is access to care. He said that on average it takes 11 years from the onset of symptoms before a child begins receiving treatment.

Murthy's main recommendations are to ensure access to "high-quality, culturally competent care," focusing on prevention with school and community-based programs and developing a better understanding of the impact technology and social media have on young people.

PHOTO: Students celebrate of the Lunar New Year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York, Feb. 02, 2022.
Students celebrate of the Lunar New Year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York, Feb. 02, 2022.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

"Currently there is a grand national experiment that is taking place upon our kids when it comes to social media and we need to understand more about what is happening, which kids are at risk, what impact these algorithms and the broader platforms are having on our children," Murthy said.

He explained that, in addition to the positive effects social media platforms have had on young people, they have also, "exacerbated feelings of loneliness, futility and low self esteem for some youth," and increased potential for negative messaging and bullying.

"Our obligation to act is not just medical, it's moral," Murthy said. "It's not only about saving lives, it's about listening to our kids who are concerned about the state of the world that they are set to inherit. It's about our opportunity to rebuild a world that we want to give them, a world that fundamentally refocuses our priorities on people and community and builds a culture of kindness, inclusion and respect."

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support. Call 1-800-273-8255 for help.

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