On December 7, 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the increasing mental health struggles of our youth. In The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, Dr. Murthy warns that even before the onset of Covid, “unfortunately, in recent years, national surveys of youth have shown major increases in certain mental health symptoms, including depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.” And “…the challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”
The report documents increasing rates of youth depression, anxiety, behavioral challenges, suicidal thinking and suicide over the past decade.
This highly readable advisory also reviews some useful information about mental health and mental illness, including the diverse factors that impact psychological wellbeing. It also offers concrete recommendations (and resources) to youth, families, educators, health care providers, journalists, social media companies, employers, government entities and others about things that can be done to address this crisis. The link is here; I strongly recommend taking a look. (www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeongeneral-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf)
It is difficult to compare the stressors facing young people (and all of us!) today with very challenging times from the past. As earlier generations will attest, the past century in the U.S., for example, brought the Great Depression, the World Wars, the upheavals and assassinations of the 1960s, the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the trauma of racism, the Vietnam War, the Cold War with its “duck-and-cover” drills and fears of nuclear Armageddon, and other really tough times. However, as it seems clear that many young people are suffering, we can focus on what current factors seem to be impacting their health and what steps we might be able to take at this point in time.
The Covid pandemic, of course, has had a drastic and negative impact on young people. Children and young adults have lost precious months and years of in-person schooling and socialization. They have had to forgo sports seasons, extracurricular activities, family vacations, internships, in-person dating and nights out with friends. Having spent so much time physically separated from peers and teachers can make re-entry into the school building, while positive and exciting, also anxiety-provoking. Those with pre-existing social anxiety may find this especially overwhelming. In addition, the adolescent and young adult years are crucial for exploring and forming one’s identity and learning the ins and outs of friendship, intimacy, and managing inevitable interpersonal conflict in healthy ways. Spending hours alone, even on social media, just doesn’t do the trick. And, as covered in a previous column, social media comes with its own negative impacts on youth mental health.
In addition to Covid, there are multiple other stressors weighing on our youth and leading some to experience intense anxiety and/or a lack of hope for the future. As the political divide in this country continues to grow, young people are encountering increasing levels of anger, vitriol and fear messaging. The values they were taught in the sandbox, such as sharing, being kind, listening to others, and apologizing are abandoned. They watch the “adults” fail to find a middle ground or compromise in order to solve some of the most critical challenges of our times, such as income inequality and the climate crisis.
Many young people are experiencing deep anxiety, an existential angst, related to climate change. They see nearly daily images of devastating wildfires, floods, hurricanes, droughts and melting glaciers. They experience environmental degradation and the loss of nature. They hear about accelerating species’ extinction. A September 2021 article in the journal Nature described findings from a survey of 10,000 young people worldwide (ages 16-25). The majority of those surveyed reported distress and negative emotions related to climate change, including intense anxiety, fear, sadness, powerlessness and anger. Many expressed feeling betrayed by their governments in failing to take action. For some, this “eco-anxiety” can lead to significant feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Concern about climate and the environment is one factor some young people cite in choosing not to have children.
Our youth overall have been experiencing increasing pressure to perform. This includes higher expectations in terms of grades and more advanced classes, standardized tests, and extracurricular activities. Instead of continuing to play recreational or pick-up soccer for fun, it becomes a push to make elite travel teams and gain a college scholarship. Young people report feeling burned out even as they begin freshman year of college. One theory relates this trend in part to rising economic insecurity after the 2008 financial crisis, weakening of the middle class, and a fear of being left behind if one strays from a clear path to “success.” The reality that many people follow a winding road while exploring different interests, and do quite well, is obscured.
Another factor underlying youth anxiety is the sense that the world is increasingly dangerous. Our younger generations have grown up in the aftermath of the national trauma of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which has profoundly affected our culture and sense of safety. Even school can feel unsafe, with more frequent school shootings and lockdown drills. Add in natural disasters and Covid, and it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Exaggerated, misleading and overly graphic media coverage, while it may increase viewership, can lead to very skewed perspective.
The Surgeon General’s report has many recommendations for addressing this crisis. Here are a few additional things parents can do. Talk with your children about what is stressing them out, and listen carefully. Be mindful of performance pressure you may be placing on them, even inadvertently, and give them permission to lighten their load or pivot to other interests to prevent burnout. Ensure they have time to relax, unwind, and socialize with peers. Monitor social media use and be alert for any bullying they may be experiencing, either online or in-person. Help them gain a broader, more balanced, perspective about the world, their safety and their futures. And try to be open and accepting to ways that they are different from you even if you don’t fully understand.
There are also many ways we can help young people learn skills such as problem-solving, tolerating difficult feelings, managing uncertainty, and regulating their emotions, including by modeling these skills ourselves. A key piece of this is building self-reliance by refraining from jumping in too quickly to immediately solve problems for them that they can address on their own, but instead supporting and guiding them in thinking about what steps they themselves can take.
The reality is that we cannot protect our children from experiencing pain and disappointment. But we can help them gain emotional resilience and the confidence to take healthy action to improve things for themselves and the world.
As the Dalai Lama advises, “When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.”