First, the good news: Mental illness in children and adolescents is often treatable and preventable.
Unfortunately, the mental health of our country’s youth is in crisis, according to a recently released advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The advisory states that this youth mental health crisis occurred long before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
In Murthy’s introduction, he shares, “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.” The advisory further states that the closures, isolation, anxiety and unrest since 2020 further “exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”
Ways to Improve Youth Mental Health
But here’s some more good news: We can take steps to improve the collective mental health of our nation’s young people.
“Depression and anxiety can change people’s insight and judgment. It can even cause them to pull away from the people who love them most. Parents need to be especially proactive in monitoring their children’s behaviors and seek help if needed,” explains Peters.
Other sectors of society have a job to do, too. The advisory details how schools, health care, media and community organizations each have specific actions to take to improve the mental wellness of the next generation. For example, schools have an obligation to create a safe and affirming environment. They can also expand their social and emotional training programs and hire more school-based mental health professionals.
Social Media Impact on Mental Health
The advisory’s caution about the potential impact social media may be having on children is worthy of noting: “Many researchers argue that digital technologies can expose children to bullying, contribute to obesity and eating disorders, trade off with sleep, encourage children to negatively compare themselves to others and lead to depression, anxiety and self-harm,” Murthy says. “Several studies have linked time spent on social media to mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.”
“The public health impact of social media has been significant,” says Peters. “While it’s not realistic for most teens to fully disconnect from it, the adults in their lives need to make sure that its overuse does not prevent kids from engaging in all of the things that we know foster mental wellness, such as self-care, quality time with family, sleep and exercise.”
The advisory’s closing comments issue this galvanizing call to action: “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.”
It may take time, but if we all work together, we can improve the mental wellness of our nation’s youth. That indeed would be some really good news.