US report shows alarming increase in MH issues among youth

From spending more time connecting with screens than with people to a false sense of reality garnered from hours spent on social media, the U.S. surgeon general has released a report warning of alarming increases in mental health challenges for young people.

High school students are reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness at a rate that's up 40% from 2009.

“This is really showing us that our youth are in a mental health crisis,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi. An infectious diseases doctor, responding to the report in an interview.

She agrees fully with another assessment in the report that the crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with research showing symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled following actions taken nationwide. In some regions, playgrounds were shuttered for months and schools locked down, with kids forced to log on virtually – or not.

“Kids really gravitate toward normal predictable roles and routines and especially for kids in pre-adolescence and into teenage years, they’re really looking at their social relationships with peers. The pandemic really upended both those things,” said Mitchell Prinstein, PhD and Chief Science Officer with the American Psychological Association, which partnered with the surgeon general’s office in researching the report.

The report also found in early 2021, emergency department visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same period in 2019.

It was an issue that was front and center at a Senate hearing Wednesday in which the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, was grilled by lawmakers about protecting children online.

“Self policing depends on trust," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut. "The trust is gone."

Blumenthal and many other Washington lawmakers are pointing the finger at social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Research conducted by parent company Meta that was leaked to the media by former employee Frances Haugen detailed the harms that can be caused, especially on teenage girls.

“I think that social media allows for this kind of ability for children to be in their own world on their phones and on their tablets and not have those conversations with parents on how they’re feeling,” said Dr. Gandhi, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

Experts say the report also brings with it a silver lining: the pandemic helped to shine a spotlight on mental health overall, particularly for young people. They’re hoping this research will prompt changes that could benefit Americans for generations to come.