Dec 7, 2021 - Health

Report: COVID exacerbated young people's "unprecedented" mental health challenges

Photo of Vivek Murthy speaking from a podium at a White House briefing
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaks during a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on July 15. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. surgeon general warned on Tuesday young people face "unprecedented" mental health challenges — and the pandemic has only made matters worse.

Why it matters: Depression, suicidal ideation and emergency room visits for mental health reasons have risen significantly in young people, according to the 53-page advisory from the country's top physician, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.

  • "It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place," he wrote.

Details: Mental health challenges were already climbing before COVID, the report says, but: "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."

  • Murthy acknowledged other challenges to children's and teens' wellbeing, including a national reckoning over the killings of Black Americans by police, violence against Asian Americans, gun violence, and growing concerns about political polarization, climate change and misinformation.
  • Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts in early 2021 rose by 51% for adolescent girls and 4% for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in 2019.
  • Reduced in-person interactions also made it more difficult to identify signs of child abuse and mental health concerns, the report said.

What he's saying: "To be sure, this isn’t an issue we can fix overnight or with a single prescription," Murthy wrote in his introduction. "Ensuring healthy children and families will take an all-of society effort, including policy, institutional, and individual changes in how we view and prioritize mental health."

  • "Our obligation to act is not just medical — it’s moral."

Go deeper: Axios AM Deep Dive: Our mental health crisis

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