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What Parents and Providers Should Know About the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Youth Mental Health Crisis

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A new 53-page advisory from US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has focused the nation’s attention on the youth mental health crisis. In the advisory, released on December 7, Dr. Murthy described the challenges young people face today as “uniquely hard to navigate,” and called the mental health effects of these challenges “devastating.”

It’s rare for the Surgeon General to issue advisories, which are reserved for significant public health issues that demand immediate awareness and action. Dr. Murthy took this step, he writes in the advisory, because “it would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.”

“I believe that, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity as a country to rebuild in a way that refocuses our identity and common values, puts people first, and strengthens our connections to each other,” he wrote.

Surgeon General Warns of Youth Mental Health Crisis

While Dr. Murthy noted the pandemic’s effect on youth mental health, he also acknowledged that mental health issues among young people were already prevalent prior to 2020. Along with referencing the increasing number of teen emergency room visits for mental health, the advisory on youth and mental health cites CDC statistics showing a 40 percent increase over the last decade in the number of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Moreover, suicide rates among teens and young adults have gone up by 57 percent since 2007.

The Surgeon General advisory also explores the factors contributing to the youth mental health crisis. Some experts suggest that the statistics may reflect the growing willingness among young people to report and discuss mental health challenges. However, the advisory includes research pointing to a variety of other factors that are detrimental to youth mental health:

In addition, limited access to quality mental healthcare means that teens and families often have no support. Untreated teen mental health issues often continue to get worse—until a youth mental health crisis catalyzes an ER visit.

What is a mental health crisis? Learn how to recognize the signs.

What the Surgeon General Advisory Provides

The Surgeon General advisory, titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” provides clear actions that can be taken by individuals, companies, and organizations, including:

  • Young people themselves
  • Family members and caregivers
  • Educators and school staff
  • Healthcare organizations and health professionals
  • Media and entertainment companies
  • Social media and video gaming companies
  • Community organizations
  • Funders and foundations
  • Employers
  • Federal, state, local, and tribal governments.

The advisory also acknowledges particular groups among the teen population that are threatened by the youth mental health crisis. For example, teen girls are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder, while teen boys have a higher risk of dying by suicide.

The Role of Technology in the Youth Mental Health Crisis

The Surgeon General advisory also references the adverse effects of social media and popular culture on teen mental health, specifically messages “that erode their sense of self-worth—telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough …When not deployed responsibly and safely, [technology] 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.”

The advisory includes a series of questions that can help parents prevent overuse of technology, such as:

  • Is screen time taking away from healthy offline activities, such as exercising, seeing friends, reading, and sleeping?
  • What healthy limits I can set on my child’s use of technology?
  • Is my child getting something meaningful and constructive out of content they are looking at, creating, or sharing?
  • Does my child have a mental health condition that might make them react more strongly to certain kinds of stressful or emotional content?
  • How does my child feel about the time they spend online? Are they engaging because they want to, or because they feel like they have to?
  • Can I be a better role model for my child in terms of my own use of technology?

Actions for Family Members and Caregivers

For parents, as well as other family members and caregivers, the Surgeon General mental health report brings awareness to actions that can help young people become more resilient against mental health challenges.

  1. Model good self-care habits, including taking breaks, getting enough sleep, exercising, eating nutritious meals, staying connected with family and friends, and unplugging from technology.
  2. Help young people to cultivate safe and caring relationships with family and other supportive mentors, in which they experience acceptance, positive validation, and open communication.
  3. Support young people to build healthy relationships with peers and to navigate peer pressure.
  4. Create a stable environment at home, including a regular daily schedule.
  5. Talk openly about the risks of alcohol and substance use, and how they can affect youth mental health.
  6. Make sure young people have regular checkups with a healthcare professional.
  7. Observe your child’s behavior, and take their mental health temperature Find out who to call for a mental health crisis.
  8. Prevent access to firearms, prescription medications, and other potential methods of self-harming.
  9. Become an advocate for mental health by speaking openly about it in your community, volunteering, and/or participating in local government.

5 Steps for Healthcare Providers

Dr. Murthy urges health professionals to reimagine how they prevent, identify, and address the youth mental health crisis, through steps including:

  1. Focusing on prevention of mental health challenges through education and programming
  2. Being aware of the many ways in which mental health challenges can manifest, including behavioral and physical symptoms
  3. Involving the family and the family system in the prevention and treatment of mental health issues
  4. Partnering with other professionals and collaborating within multidisciplinary teams
  5. Offering culturally sensitive care.

The advisory also notes how important it is for mental healthcare professionals to nurture their own well-being. This is essential in order to avoid burnout and continue delivering compassionate care.

What Educators and School Staff Can Do

As the place where young people spend so much of their time, schools have the potential to play a major role in youth mental health. While school can be a stressful environment, in can also provide safety, positive role models, and opportunities for connection and building self-esteem. Here are some of the actions that the Surgeon General advisory recommends for school professionals and school systems.

  1. Help create “positive, safe, and affirming school environments” through developing anti-bullying policies, talking to students and families about mental health, using inclusive language and behaviors, and considering measures that would support student well-being, such as a later start to the school day.
  2. Incorporate social-emotional learning approaches and programs.
  3. Learn to recognize possible warning signs of mental health issues, and work with colleagues, such as counselors or nurses, to connect students to services.
  4. Provide programs and support to meet student mental health needs, including screenings, resources, and staff trainings.
  5. Work toward a school environment that protects the mental health and well-being of staff as well as students, through realistic workloads and student-to-staff ratios, and competitive wages and benefits.

Resources for Addressing the Youth Mental Health Crisis

The advisory acknowledges that reversing the trends regarding youth and mental health “won’t come overnight,” and will require structural buy-in and change. However, there is hope. Dr. Murthy writes, “If we seize this moment, step up for our children and their families in their moment of need, and lead with inclusion, kindness, and respect, we can lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation.”

He concludes, “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.”

Are you a parent, school professional, or mental healthcare provider? Newport Academy is dedicated to offering support to families and professionals to help create positive change for young people. Contact us today to learn more about how we can serve as a resource for your clients, family, or school.