'An emergency': Surgeon General raises alarm, issues rare advisory over youth mental health

Dr. Murthy partially blames social media, saying it increases a sense of isolation and adds to a culture of comparison.
SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- The country's top physician is putting focus on the mental health of young people, especially during the on-going pandemic.

Dr. Vivek Murthy said too many children are struggling, citing a rise in suicide rates and much more- the reason behind a rare public advisory on youth mental health.

The 53-page report, out on Tuesday, detailed a list of devastating mental health effects linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges experienced by the younger generation.

"We had rates of suicide increase among our children," Dr. Murthy explained on Monday. "And for many kids during the pandemic, feelings of anxiety and depression worsened, and loneliness as well."

RELATED: Suicide Prevention: Local resources for those in crisis

Dr. Murthy pinned part of the blame on social media, saying it increases a sense of isolation and adds to a culture of comparison.

Mental health experts and agencies across the Bay Area admit the issue is even more complex.

"These are kids who have grown up- every 20 minutes there's a new crisis that splashed over media and elsewhere. And no wonder they're traumatized. No wonder they suffer from anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, alcohol, and the rest," Santa Clara University Psychology Professor Dr. Thomas Plante told ABC7 News. "This is this is a tough time, and we're seeing the ramifications of that with all of these troubles."

Dr. Plante said it is a pretty remarkable statement that the Surgeon General issued the advisory, although mental health experts have long known about the crisis.

"It's so bad. It's such a crisis," he added. "Everybody can do their part to try to make it better. It's a heavy lift, but we all got to do what we can do to make it better."

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A Kaiser study found an increase of individuals without a history of seeking mental health help reporting suicidal thoughts from 2019 to 2020.



The report also pointed to a significant rise in self-reports of depression, anxiety and ER visits for mental health challenges.

Specific to the U.S., emergency room visits for suicide attempts went up 51% for "adolescent girls" in early 2021, compared to the same period in 2019. Those numbers were up 4% for boys.

"What was a crisis before has really become an emergency," Dr. Steven Adelsheim, the Director of Stanford's Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing said.

He and his team contributed to the Surgeon General's report, offering insight to the center's efforts.

"The Surgeon General's Office reached out to me and our team to get our input as they were working on the document," he said. "We were really able to give them insight around the work we've been doing locally, through our center and in partnership with Santa Clara County, and frankly, the State of California."

TAKE ACTION: Get help with mental health issues

Additionally, Dr. Adelsheim mentioned the allcove centers in both San Jose and Palo Alto. These outlets are described as integrated youth mental health programs for young people.

"The first of their kind in the country, to create spaces for and by young people to come in for Early Mental Health Care, which is one of the key recommendations of the Surgeon General's advisory," he continued.

He explained there has long been a need for youth mental health support and improved access to care.

"This was all before the pandemic started," he said about various mental health issues. "And over the course of time since then, we've seen lots of stress within families that our young people have responded to struggles around school, grief and loss in many of our families. Major economic challenges, and young people stepping up to support their families in big ways. All the while, you know, not being able to connect with their friends in the same way. Go on and move their own lives forward, losing high school, losing school, losing prom, losing connections with friends, and critical social needs that our young people have. So those challenges have only exacerbated."

It is an extensive list of additional problems that have been highlighted in Tuesday's advisory.

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Recent changes to mask recommendations across the Bay Area and U.S. may mean more stress for some people.



As explained in the report, "Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that need the nation's immediate awareness and action. This Advisory offers recommendations for supporting the mental health of children, adolescents, and young adults. While many of these recommendations apply to individuals, the reality is that people have widely varying degrees of control over their circumstances. As a result, not all recommendations will be feasible for everyone."

The report addressed the network of influence around today's youth, suggesting ways everyone has a role in improvement. The document detailed:

  • What Young People Can Do
  • What Family Members and Caregivers Can Do
  • What Educators, School Staff, and School Districts Can Do
  • What Health Care Organizations and Health Professionals Can Do
  • What Media Organizations, Entertainment Companies, and Journalists Can Do
  • What Social Media, Video Gaming, and Other Technology Companies Can Do
  • What Community Organizations Can Do
  • What Funders and Foundations Can Do What Employers Can Do
  • What Federal, State, Local, and Tribal Governments Can Do


"Everybody has a role to play in trying to get us through these very challenging times, where mental health troubles among youth is just completely out of control," Dr. Plante weighed in.

"Even if you don't know what to say, you can start with that," Joanna Carson-Young, M.A. Clinical Director, School-Based Services with the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) told ABC7 News. "And say, 'I'm not sure what to say, but I would love to talk to you about how you're feeling.'"

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One suggested approach on how to begin the conversation.

CHAC is a community-based mental health agency serving Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and surrounding areas.

The agency provides counseling services to 35 schools in four school districts, specifically those in K through 12th grade.

In addition, CHAC has a clinic, where they focus on Family Services, helping families and adults at their clinic in Mountain View as well.

"We've been doing this for almost 50 years, and are an important community resource for those that might otherwise not be able to avail themselves of mental health services," CHAC Executive Director Marsha Deslauriers said.

RELATED: Experts say loneliness and anxiety issues will be common for students returning to school

In response to the number of significant events happening at once, impacting the mental health of young people, Deslauriers said, "I don't think we've ever seen anything like this. And I think that is where the term unprecedented comes in and how people are trying to handle it."

Different from a natural catastrophe, she added, "An earthquake or a hurricane has a defined amount of time and defined location, and those make a difference. This has just encompass the entire world, and we don't know and understand the uncertainty of the time element."

Deslauriers and Carson-Young with CHAC both hope the advisory leads to the "normalizing of mental health" as an important piece of a person's life.

"Whether it's a child or a parent, or a teacher, or any school personnel, or anyone out there in the workplace," Carson-Young shared.

RELATED: Bay Area sees therapist shortage during COVID-19 pandemic

"We would like to see is that mental health is on the same parity as physical health," Deslauriers added. "There's so much emphasis for physical health, which is very, very important. But we need to elevate the mental health in the in the same way."

For information on CHAC, click here.

For information on allcove, click here.

For information on Stanford's Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, click here.

For information on the Stanford Media and Mental Health Initiative from the advisory, click here.

For the Surgeon General's full advisory, click here.

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