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Why US surgeon general is calling the pandemic, youth mental health 'dual crises'

Lisa Ballash, a school counselor at Granite Park Junior
High in South Salt Lake, poses for a photo in her office on
Tuesday. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has
issued an advisory spotlighting the urgent need to address the
nation’s youth mental health crisis.

Lisa Ballash, a school counselor at Granite Park Junior High in South Salt Lake, poses for a photo in her office on Tuesday. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory spotlighting the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

ROCKVILLE, Md. — U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory spotlighting the urgent need to address the nation's youth mental health crisis.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, youth were struggling with mental health challenges.

"The pandemic era's unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced. It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place," Murthy wrote in the advisory.

The document, titled "Protecting Youth Mental Health," describes the pandemic and its impact on already-strained youth mental health as "dual crises."

Murthy said the future well-being of the country depends on how the nation supports and invests in the next generation.

"Especially in this moment, as we work to protect the health of Americans in the face of a new variant, we also need to focus on how we can emerge stronger on the other side. This advisory shows us how we can all work together to step up for our children during this dual crisis," he said. The advisory includes a series of recommendations for families, educators, media and technology companies.

Key recommendations include:

  • Recognizing that mental health is an essential part of overall health.
  • Empowering youth and their families to recognize, manage and learn from difficult emotions.
  • Ensuring that every child has access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental health care.
  • Supporting the mental health of children and youth in educational, community and child care settings.
  • Addressing the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people, families and caregivers.

Students leave at the end of the school day at Granite
Park Junior High in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Dec. 7,
2021.
Students leave at the end of the school day at Granite Park Junior High in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread, Murthy said.

Before the pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the U.S. increased by 57%, and early estimates show more than 6,600 deaths by suicide among this age group in 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In Utah, a recent briefing to the Utah Board of Higher Education suggests high awareness and a robust response on the part of state lawmakers to address the mental health needs on Utah college campuses.

Huntsman Mental Health Institute CEO Dr. Mark Rapaport, in a recent presentation to the Utah Board of Higher Education, described the Utah Legislature' support of resources to mental health treatment and research as "remarkable."

Over the last decade, the state lawmakers have dedicated $175 million to mental health care and discovery.

"The Legislature also is, believe it or not, one of the most progressive legislative bodies in the country when it comes to passing pro-mental health legislation," Rapaport said.

A historic gift of $150 million from the Huntsman family in 2019 to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, support research, access to mental health, train more providers and serve psychiatric patients also provides opportunities for the state's higher education system to better serve students' needs, he said.

State education officials recently told the Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee of the growing demand for mental health services among K-12 students.

As an example, Tooele County School District referred 61 students to mental health service providers in the 2019-2020 school year. The following year, the number of referrals increased to 307.

"That is an increase of 403% of students who the district determined needed those community referrals," said Ashley Lower, behavior specialist with the Utah State Board of Education's Safe and Healthy Schools team.

Students leave at the end of the school day at Granite
Park Junior High in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Dec. 7,
2021.
Students leave at the end of the school day at Granite Park Junior High in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

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Marjorie Cortez

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