U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, added to the chorus of experts expressing concern of the state of the mental health of American youths last week, issuing an advisory about the pressing need to address the mental health crisis among the nation’s youth.
In the advisory, Dr. Murthy called the challenges that American youths are facing today “unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.” The “unfathomable” number of deaths due to COVID-19, high levels of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones have all played key roles in worsened mental health among youths, Murthy added.
But the youth mental health crisis was looming even before the pandemic started, Murthy wrote.
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The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Tipping Point?
Maya Smith, executive director of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation for youth mental health, agrees with Murthy’s assessment. “Young people across the globe, especially members of marginalized communities, were facing significant challenges long before the pandemic,” Smith explains. “Many young people — honestly, many people — felt lonely, isolated, and unable to access mental health resources.”
From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent, those who seriously contemplated suicide increased by 36 percent, and those who made a plan to take their own lives increased by 44 percent, according to the 2009–2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (PDF) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (PDF).
The pandemic, experts say, has worsened all of this.
“The pandemic has proven that many youths are now existing in a space muddled with the need to motivate themselves, reconnect with their peers, and prioritize the things that matter most, including hobbies, study time, and physical activity,” says David Vidaurre, licensed master social worker and senior therapist at The Dorm, which specializes in mental healthcare for young adults in New York City and Washington, DC.
This loss of routine and structure has contributed to feelings of despair, uncertainty, and disconnection, adding to feelings of isolation and loneliness that existed long before the pandemic, Vidaurre adds.
According to the advisory, youths who may be most prone to mental health challenges during the pandemic include youths with intellectual disabilities, racial and ethnic minority youths, LGBTQ+ youths, youths living in immigrant households, among others.
And several risk factors for mental health issues as COVID-19 rages on include having mental health issues before the pandemic, living in an area with more severe outbreaks of COVID-19, having parents or caregivers working on the frontlines, losing a loved one to COVID-19, and experiencing abuse, neglect, discrimination, or community violence.
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Protecting and Rebuilding Youth Mental Health: Strategies for Parents
The looming question, of course, is what can be done about it? Mental health experts agree that parents need to play a major role.
“The most important thing for young people is for them to feel seen, heard, and supported,” says Smith. “Having someone like a parent or otherwise who …….