The US surgeon general warned on Tuesday that young people face “devastating” effects on mental health because of the challenges faced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.
The post came as part of a rare public advisory from the country’s top doctor, Dr Vivek Murthy, in a 53-page report noting that the pandemic has intensified mental health issues that were already prevalent in the spring of 2020.
The report cited significant increases in self-reports of depression, anxiety, and emergency room visits for mental health issues. In the United States, emergency room visits for attempted suicide increased 51% for teenage girls in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. This figure rose 4% for boys.
Globally, symptoms of anxiety and depression have doubled during the pandemic, the report notes. But mental health problems were already on the rise in the United States, with emergency room visits related to depression, anxiety and related issues increasing 28% between 2007 and 2018.
The reasons are complex and not yet final. Teenage brain chemistry and relationships with friends and family are important factors, the report notes, as is a fast-paced media culture, which can leave some young minds helpless.
“Young people are bombarded with messages across the media and popular culture that erode their self-esteem – telling them that they are not good-looking enough, popular enough, smart enough or wealthy enough,” Murthy writes in the report. “It comes as progress on legitimate and painful issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic and gun violence appears too slow.”
The surgeon general’s advice comes on top of a growing number of calls for attention and action around adolescent mental health. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association joined together to declare a “national emergency” in youth mental health.
While the blame for adolescent distress is often blamed on social media, research suggests screen time isn’t enough to explain the crisis. On the contrary, social media and other online activities work more to amplify a teen’s existing mental state, causing some to feel more distress and others to experience heightened feelings of connection.
Bonnie Nagel, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Oregon Health & Science University who treats and studies adolescents, said online interactions did not appear to meet basic connection needs.
Recent research she co-authored shows that loneliness is a key predictor of feelings of depression and suicidal ideation.
“I don’t think it’s a real human connection when talking to someone online with a false front,” Nagel said.
At the same time, screen time can displace activities known to be vital for physical and mental health, including sleep, exercise, and in-person activities, according to research. The current generation of young people express increased levels of loneliness – more than any other age group – despite spending countless hours connected to the media.
Authorities and scientists widely recognize that research into the underlying causes is insufficient. Murthy’s opinion calls for more resources to be devoted to understanding and addressing mental health issues, and he calls for a greater appreciation of mental health as a key factor in overall health.
“Now is the time to demand change,” the report concludes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.