Surgeon General alarmed by rise in child suicides triggered by pandemic

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is shedding some light on a growing crisis of child mental health issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has produced an epidemic of mental health challenges for young people. As the second year of the pandemic ends, the state of children’s mental health has hospitals, teachers, and health professionals thinking an epidemic has already arrived.

Earlier this month, Murthy issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis that is emerging from the pandemic. The advisory calls for “a swift and coordinated response” as the crisis grows.

“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. 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 Surgeon General Vivek 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. The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation. 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.”

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 share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students. Suicidal behaviors among high school students also increased during the decade preceding COVID, with 19% seriously considering attempting suicide, a 36% increase from 2009 to 2019, and about 16% having made a suicide plan in the prior year, a 44% increase from 2009 to 2019. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the U.S. increased by 57%, – PDF and early estimates show more than 6,600 suicide deaths – PDF among this age group in 2020.

Dr. Murthy told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday that mental health issues were a growing concern before the pandemic, with an increase in the number of cases rising for decades before the pandemic. He points to the loss of loved ones during the pandemic, as well as mitigation measures like lockdowns and school closures that bring on depression from isolation as reasons for an increase in mental health issues.

‘I’m so concerned about our children because there is an epidemic, if you will, of mental health challenges that they’ve been facing, and it’s partly because of the pandemic,’ Dr Murthy, a father of two, said on CNN’s State of the Nation on Sunday.

He continued: ‘You know, a decade before the pandemic, we saw a 40 per cent increase in a number of high school students who said they felt persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness. We had increases in suicides among kids, to alarming levels.’

He said: ‘Well, Dana, I’m so concerned about our children because there is an epidemic, if you will, of mental health challenges that they’ve been facing, and it’s partly because of the pandemic.

‘We’ve seen certainly that many children have lost loved ones during this pandemic, 140,000 kids lost to caregiver. We know that their lives have been turned upside down. They haven’t been able to see friends as often as they would. And that’s taken a toll.

The pandemic is causing an increase in problems that were already growing for young people. A big problem is a lack of social contact with friends, classmates, and teachers. One in five young people reports experiencing symptoms of depression and one in four suffer from anxiety. Their lives have been turned upside down at a crucial time in their development. Given that we know that children do not suffer from the same problems from COVID-19 as adults do, the harm being done to children is all the more tragic.

A first step to be taken is for adults to acknowledge that young people are suffering from decisions made in mitigating the pandemic. Kids need to be encouraged by adults in their lives that if they need some help, it is nothing to be ashamed about. They are not alone. Tele-health sessions with doctors have seen a marked increase in popularity with parents during the pandemic. The latest available data from UNICEF, for example, shows at least 1 in 7 children affected by lockdown and more than 1.6 billion children have suffered from some amount of loss of education. The effects of the past two years and moving forward with the pandemic will be felt now and for years in the future. Disruptions in family life due to job loss and income loss, as well as disruptions in education and recreational activities leave young people struggling, just like the adults in their lives.

Murthy took the opportunity to promote vaccinations and boosters as a way to get back to a more normal way of life. Rising cases and new variants bring despair to families and uncertainty. That doesn’t address the epidemic of breakthrough cases we are seeing with Omicron, though. He offered some words of encouragement amidst all the doom and gloom.

‘So, what I would say to folks out there, so I know it’s tough right now. I know that there’s a prospect of another wave with omicron coming, but we now know more about how to stay safe than we’ve ever known,’ Murthy said.

‘If you’re vaccinated and boosted, your risk of having a bad outcome with COVID-19 is much, much lower and we will get to the end of this pandemic. It’s gone through twists and turns. But we will get there and we will get there together,’ he added.

We know one way to help families and particularly children – get all the schools open and keep them open. Stop the falling back to online school days as we see the Omicron variant work its way across the country. Schools should treat it like the flu at this point. Schools don’t close over outbreaks of the flu. Let the children seek relief from the stress of the pandemic through their friendships and classmates at school and in other activities. We have to get on with our lives for the sake of everyone’s mental health, most importantly that of the next generation who are our most vulnerable.