US Surgeon General highlights teens' mental health crisis in San Diego visit
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy was in Southeast San Diego on Monday visiting the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA to see programs designed to help kids with mental health concerns. He also spent time speaking to and taking questions from local high school students.
"You might feel stressed at times, anxious, or you may struggle with depression — that doesn’t mean that you’re broken or that something is wrong with you," Murthy told the students, most of whom were from nearby Lincoln High School.
The Surgeon General’s visit comes after the CDC released data last week showing how the pandemic has worsened kids' mental health. A study of high school students found more than a third reported poor mental health and nearly half said they felt hopeless or persistently sad over the last year.
"We have to do better by our kids," Murthy said about the CDC's findings. "We’ve got to do that by investing in more treatment and making that accessible to them."
The CDC study also found half of teens surveyed reported recent emotional abuse by a parent.
If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255
"What that really said to me is our families are stressed," said Dr. Willough Jenkins, head of Rady Children's Hospital's psychiatric services.
Jenkins said locally Rady Children's has seen record numbers of mental health cases. She said schools are on the front lines of the crisis and need help.
"We need to support them more," Jenkins said. "We need more funding for teachers, we need to have more school-based mental health interventions because they are where these children are being seen. And that I think is a big reason why children suffered during the pandemic — because they lost that support of the schools."
The CDC reports that even before the pandemic, mental health was already getting worse among teens. The agency said a sense of connectedness, or belonging at home and school is key. Health officials say parents and guardians should be checking in on their kids and simply asking them how they are doing, because early interventions like that work.
"We have really effective treatments for children and youth," Jenkins said. "And if we can get involved, children that have mental health concerns go on to do very well and lead very full lives with appropriate treatment and intervention. So there is a lot of hope despite these difficult conversations about rising mental health rates in children."
Murthy said there is a stigma around mental health that has to be removed. He said no young person should ever be afraid to seek treatment. Murthy shared his own personal mental health challenges with students on Monday. He said when growing up, he felt lonely and isolated, even depressed and anxious at times.
"But I never told anyone, including my parents because I was ashamed," he said. "I thought that if I'm experiencing that then it must mean I don't know how to cope with stress, must mean I don't have my stuff together, must mean I'm weak in some way ... And I wish I had [told someone]. I wish I knew where to go for help because only later did I realize that I wasn't the only one who was struggling. A lot of my classmates were too."
The Surgeon General outlined changes for mental health in youth last December, but many of those are not quick fixes. Murthy said there are short and long term goals.
"The long term doesn't have to be very long, we can make the long term changes like policy changes, financial investments in mental health care happen quickly — if we put our minds to it," he said. "That's why I have been working closely with legislators as well to underscore the urgency of this moment because we have to get this right."
In the short term, people can talk to kids. Murthy said people do not have to be a mental health professional to make a difference in a young person.
"Reaching out to those kids to let them know that they matter, that we are there for them if they are struggling," he said. "Sharing our own challenges can also help them understand, to struggle is normal."