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At a Boston University School of Public Health webinar in June 2023, US Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts quieted the virtual room by citing two statistics.
“Nearly 1 in 3 youth seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021,” said Markey, citing a recent CDC report. “And nearly 3 in 5 US teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless.”
These statistics underline a rising youth mental health crisis.
And it’s why US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, who joined Sen. Markey as a guest in the webinar, issued an advisory calling youth mental health an “urgent public health issue.”
Let’s explore these two US leaders’ discussions on the causes of the youth mental health crisis and how our country can work toward a healthier future for young people.
Causes of the Youth Mental Health Crisis
He also highlighted the devastating mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased social isolation among youth and caused the loss of loved ones.
“We put the weight of the world on our young people, and it’s making them sick,” Sen. Markey said in the webinar.
Mental health stigma, especially in the Latino community, keep youth from seeking help.
There’s also a lack of resources for mental healthcare in schools due to limited funding, especially in black and brown communities.
As a result, psychologists and counselors are not adequately staffed in schools, and teachers and administrators are left to address student mental health on their own.
“[School staff] are asked to do too much with too little [resources],” Sen. Markey said in the webinar.
Outside the school setting, mental healthcare professionals are also stretched thin.
“Our waiting list is like 180 families right now,” Jonathan Dalton, a licensed psychologist with experience treating school avoidance behavior, told USA Today. “The mental health infrastructure was never designed for this level of need.”
Impacts of the Youth Mental Health Crisis
With the building pressure of these challenges, young people are increasingly turning to social media for comfort.
While social media has its benefits, especially in garnering support for social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, “we cannot conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents,” Surgeon Gen. Murthy said in the webinar.
This conclusion comes from several studies finding that up to 95% of young people aged 13-17 use at least one social media platform and spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on those platforms.
This is concerning considering just three hours a day on social media is enough to double the risk of mental health problems in children and adolescents, including symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Social media use can even spark discrimination against certain racial/ethnic groups, such as Latinos.
With these serious drawbacks, why don’t young people cut down on social media use?
Social media has become ingrained in modern society and is designed to be quite addicting with personalized content.
When users continuously see appealing content on their social media feeds, it can be even harder to put the phone down.
Unfortunately, the responsibility of monitoring youth social media use falls largely on the shoulders of parents. Surgeon Gen. Murthy emphasized that this is a responsibility no other generation of parents has faced before.
“Parents are noticing that youth are in crisis,” Surgeon Gen. Murthy said in the webinar. “It’s a moral responsibility we have to take care of our kids and the next generation.”
Solutions to the Youth Mental Health Crisis
Yet, there are no official guidelines for parents on how to navigate youth social media use, and no current legislation protects youth aged 13-18 from targeted social media advertisements and content, according to Sen. Markey.
Passing such legislation won’t be easy, “but we have to fight” to find ways to make social media safer for kids, he said, like the way we added seatbelts and airbags to vehicles.
Sen. Markey also proposed investing more in public health programs that can help prevent the development of youth mental health conditions.
Surgeon Gen. Murthy added that technology, especially telemedicine, can help shorten wait times to see a mental health provider, and there should be a greater reimbursement incentive from health insurance companies for providers to utilize telemedicine.
Additionally, he suggested that schools hire more psychologists and counselors through funding from the American Rescue Plan, while parents support youth in activities that foster healthy relationships and social skills. Surgeon Gen. Murthy explained that learning how to communicate and interact with others is “just as important as learning how to write and do math.”
Finally, both Sen. Markey and Surgeon Gen. Murthy expressed the importance of talking more openly about mental health, as the happy, smiling faces on social media can make users feel like they’re the only ones struggling.
In reality, “we’re experts in putting masks on and pretending everything is OK,” Surgeon Gen. Murthy said.
Sen. Markey ended the webinar with a major reason why people of all ages should care about the youth mental health crisis.
“Young people are only 20% of the population, but they are 100% of our future,” he said.
Helping Youth Who Experience Traumatic Events
Youth who have been traumatized – from experiencing poverty to witnessing violence – face a burden of stress that can interfere with their mental health, behavior, and grades.
You can help schools support traumatized youth by downloading the free Salud America! “Handle With Care Action Pack.”
The Action Pack helps police, school, and mental healthcare leaders start the Handle with Care program, in which police notify schools when they encounter youth at a traumatic scene, so schools can provide trauma-sensitive support right away – even if school is out for summer.