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Children’s health and development

Applauding the surgeon general’s December 7 advisory on ‘Protecting Youth Mental Health’

APA members and staff contributed resources and briefed the Office of the Surgeon General to help shape the advisory.

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American Psychological Association. (2021, December 7). Applauding the surgeon general’s December 7 advisory on ‘Protecting Youth Mental Health’.

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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, released an advisory statement on December 7 to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. “Protecting Youth Mental Health” (PDF, 1.01MB) outlines the COVID-19 pandemic’s harm to the mental health of America’s youth and families, as well as the mental health challenges that had accumulated before the pandemic began.

The advisory statement includes recommendations for actions that individuals, families, community organizations, technology companies, governments, and others can take to improve the mental health of children, adolescents, and young adults.

APA jumped at the invitation of the surgeon general’s office to contribute to this report.  Earlier this fall, APA, with a coalition of leading experts in pediatric health, also joined a campaign to “Sound the Alarm” for child and adolescent mental health. 

“Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide—and rates have increased over the past decade,” said Murthy. “The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating...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.”

To demonstrate the growing challenges and spotlight the need for population health approaches, “Protecting Youth Mental Health” states that before the COVID-19 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. Additionally, from 2009 to 2019, the number of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10–24 in the U.S. increased by 57% (PDF, 477KB) and early estimates show more than 6,600 suicide deaths among this age group in 2020.

The pandemic has most heavily affected children and adolescents who were already vulnerable to mental health challenges, including youth living in immigrant households, homeless youth or those involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, youth with disabilities, racial and ethnic minority youth, LGBTQ+ youth, and youth in rural areas. 

APA met with drafters of the advisory in the Office of the Surgeon General several times as this advisory was being prepared by sharing recommendations on ways to enhance mental health in schools and extend and bolster the mental health workforce, and by calling for increased research on and transparency for young consumers of social media. In addition to Advocacy Office staff, Lauren Fasig Caldwell, PhD, provided written material from the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families, and Mitch Prinstein, PhD, joined the briefings along with APA members Eric Butter, PhD, Sharon Berry, PhD, and Parinda Khatri, PhD. Additional APA experts will likely be involved in coming months as the surgeon general meets with various constituencies, including scientists and the mental health workforce, that are working to help improve youth mental health.  

Surgeon general's advisories are public statements that call attention to a U.S. public health issue and provide recommendations for how it should be addressed. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that need immediate attention.

Read the full surgeon general’s advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health” (PDF, 1.01MB).

For more information, contact Pat Kobor.