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KPBS Midday Edition

US Surgeon General issues public health advisory on youth mental health crisis

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, July 15, 2021.
Susan Walsh / AP
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, July 15, 2021.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory Tuesday on children’s mental health and how COVID-19 pandemic-hardships have played a role in the emerging crisis.

If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255

The public health advisory states that symptoms of depression and anxiety among youth have doubled during the pandemic.

The advisory is a call to action and meant to focus attention on the increased rate of depression and anxiety being diagnosed in children. It calls for government, social media companies, schools and parents to respond to the problem with increased mental health resources.

"It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place. That’s why I am issuing this Surgeon General’s Advisory. Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable. This Advisory shows us how."
— Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General

KPBS Midday Edition spoke with the medical director of Inpatient Psychiatry at Rady Children’s Hospital Dr. Willough Jenkins about how the pandemic has affected mental health in the youth population.

"We have seen a huge increase in the number of children that have been coming to the inpatient side of the hospital at Rady Children's during the pandemic," Jenkins said. "Just as an example, from September 2020 to August 2021 we had almost 3,000 children endure suicidal ideation when they came through our emergency room. This is a staggering number. So absolutely we see more and more depression and anxiety presenting since the start of the pandemic."

RELATED: Rady Children's Seeing 25% Increase In Mental Health ER Visits

She said typically, younger children exhibit depression and anxiety differently than adults and older adolescents.

"For young children, typically what you'll see is more disruptions in their behavior. Maybe they're acting out more, getting into more trouble at school, being a little bit more irritable or short-tempered," Jenkins said. "Disruptions in sleep, not sleeping well, changes in appetite; these are other signs that your young child might be struggling because they don't always have the capacity to be able to tell you 'I'm depressed, I'm anxious.'"

There are multiple factors playing a role in youth being affected by the mental health crisis, she said.

"Issues of racial injustice, political divisiveness, these issues are weighing heavily on our adolescents, and are huge factors in addition to all of the impact that the pandemic has brought upon youth directly and indirectly through the impact on their families," Jenkins said.

Mental health issues are preventable and are treatable, and catching children early is key, she said.