New Report Shows Pandemic's "Devastating" Effect on Youth Mental Health

December 7, 2021

The U.S. Surgeon General is sounding the alarm on our nation's growing mental health crisis among children.

On Tuesday, Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory that calls for a swift and coordinated response to this crisis as the nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides recommendations that individuals, families, community organizations, technology companies, governments, and others can take to improve the mental health of children, adolescents and young adults.

"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," he wrote. "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.”

Read the full advisory here.

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Earlier in the pandemic, we introduced you to Dr. Doug Walker, who has spent years helping communities heal after manmade and natural disasters, but he has never witnessed a situation quite like the global pandemic caused by COVID-19.

“The pandemic is universal and brings us to a place we’ve never been in our generation,” said Walker, PhD, chief programs director and clinical psychologist at Mercy Family Center in New Orleans, an outreach ministry of Mercy. “In other natural disasters, the areas impacted are surrounded by areas that are intact — physically, biologically and economically. There is extra stress and anxiety associated with COVID-19 because there’s no way to escape from it and no cavalry coming to provide relief.”

While there is no playbook on how to handle stress, anxiety, grief or trauma related to COVID-19, Walker recommends adopting some resiliency skills.

Practical steps on path to recovery

In order to recover after a disaster or traumatic event, research shows that people need to feel safe, calm, connected to others, have hope and/or believe that they can rebuild or have the ability to become even better.

  • Focus on problem solving: When people are stressed or traumatized, the brain tends to focus on survival and often cannot work through problems. With COVID-19, there are a lot of things that are out of our control, but it’s important to find creative ways to solve problems. For example, finding ways to successfully work from home, developing strategies to step in as your child’s teacher or creating your own face mask.
  • Manage your reactions: Trying to find calm in a stressful situation is tough. Learn what triggers your emotions and find strategies to calm yourself down, like breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness activities.
  • Invest in healthy social connections: Although this is hard to do right now with social distancing, there are virtual ways to connect with each other. This is also a great opportunity to spend meaningful time with the family members or friends in your household.
  • Participate in positive activities: Although our leisure time activities may be more limited, find activities that make you feel better, like getting outside, exercising, reading a book or watching a good movie.
  • Practice helpful thinking: This is probably the most complex skill because it requires changing the way you think or feel about a situation. Living along Lake Pontchartrain in a suburb north of New Orleans, Walker witnessed people flocking to his neighborhood over the last few weeks to enjoy the walking paths around the water. Although initially annoyed by the increased traffic and noise, he changed his thinking by reflecting on how happy everyone seemed as they were engaged in healthy activities.