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The U.S. surgeon general issues a stark warning about the state of youth mental health

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talks to reporters at the White House on July 15.
Chip Somodevilla
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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talks to reporters at the White House on July 15.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has a warning about the mental health of young people.

Murthy told Morning Edition that children and young adults were already facing a mental health crisis before the coronavirus pandemic began: One in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase from 2009 to 2019, he said. Suicide rates went up during that time by 57% among youth ages 10 to 24. During the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have increased, he said.

The pandemic has made the issues behind the mental health crisis only worse, he said.

"This is a critical issue that we have to do something about now," he said. "We can't wait until after the pandemic is over."

Murthy, who issued an advisory called "Protecting Youth Mental Health," also cites gun violence, the specter of climate change, racism and social conflict as sources of stress.

"We also have to recognize that kids increasingly are experiencing bullying, not just in school but online, that they're growing up in a popular culture and a media culture that reminds kids often that they aren't good-looking enough, thin enough, popular enough, rich enough, frankly, just not enough," he said.

"Even to this day, even though I have parents who I know unconditionally loved me, I never felt comfortable telling them about it because I thought that this was my fault. I don't want that to be the reality for my children, who are 4 and 5 and growing up, you know, in this very complicated world."

Listen to the conversation or read on to learn about Murthy's own struggles with loneliness and anxiety as a child. The interview has been lightly edited.

On how technology companies need to design platforms that strengthen youth mental health:

They've got to be transparent with data on the harms and benefits so that we can understand which children, in particular, are most at risk. But most importantly, we need them in the long term and short term to design platforms that strengthen youth mental health. The current business model of most platforms is built on how they maximize time spent — not time well spent, but time spent. And we need these platforms to be designed to strengthen the mental health of our kids to make them better. And right now, we're conducting this national experiment on our kids with social media. And it's worrisome to me as a parent.

On the importance of combating stigma:

As much as technology has an important role here, what we are calling for in this advisory are much broader changes as well. We're asking for individuals to take action to change how we think and talk about mental health so people with mental health struggles know that they have nothing to be ashamed of and it's OK to ask for help. That stigma is so powerful still around mental health, something I experienced as a young person who struggled with mental health. I didn't know that I could ask for help and I was ashamed. But we're also calling for expanded access to mental health care, for increases in mental health counselors in schools and investments in social-emotional learning curricula in schools, as well as, finally, for people to invest in relationships in their life.

On his own struggles with loneliness, isolation and anxiety as a child:

As a young child, I was very shy and had a difficult time making friends, and I struggled a lot with loneliness and a sense of isolation, with anxiety. Certainly, when it came time to go to school, I wasn't nervous about tests — I was nervous about feeling isolated and alone. Unfortunately, I had to also deal with a lot of bullying, as many kids did and still do, when I was in middle school.

But with all of that, I felt this same sense of shame, like it was somehow my fault. Even to this day, even though I have parents who I know unconditionally loved me, I never felt comfortable telling them about it because I thought, you know, that this was my fault, that I did something wrong, and I didn't know where to go for help. And I don't want that to be the reality for my children, who are 4 and 5 and growing up in this very complicated world.


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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