We Are Facing a Youth Mental Health Crisis

Last week, the United States surgeon general spoke out and warned that young people are facing “devastating” effects on their mental health as a direct result from challenges experienced by their generation, especially the COVID-19 pandemic.

The US surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, released a 53-page report stating that the pandemic had intensified mental health problems, a trend that already started early on in 2020. The report cites significant increases in reports of depression and anxiety along with an increased rate for emergency room visits for mental health issues. Here in the United States, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls in early 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Although these rates were already on the rise, increasing 28% from 2011 to 2015, the increase from 2019 to 2021 is significantly more rapid than before.

This report is not the first time an “influential voice” is calling for action. Back in October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association, together, declared a “national emergency” in youth mental health.

The blame is often put on increased use of social media, however it is difficult to conclude that overuse of social media is the primary reason these numbers are skyrocketing. As a matter of fact, researchers claim that increased screen time alone does not account for this crisis. The report states that adolescent brain chemistry, relationships with friends and family, and a fast-paced media culture all play significant roles in this mental health epidemic. One factor that one might add to this list is diet. As we have discussed many times in this newsletter, an unhealthy diet (including the increased consumption of comfort food eaten to combat anxiety) consumed in front of the TV, and without close social interactions can influence the brain through alterations in brain gut microbiome interactions and has been implicated in several mental health conditions.

One important thing to note is that while screen time itself may not account for the crisis, it could be that increased screen time is taking away time from activities which are important for our mental health, including sleep, exercise and in-person socializing.

Dr. Murthy claims that increased use and bombardment of messages through social media and pop culture erode people’s sense of self-worth – telling them they aren’t good enough. He goes on to say that this as well as progress on continued, distressing issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence, isn’t moving fast enough to give the confidence that these issues are being solved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly made more people feel isolated. For the majority of the last two years, students were not able to connect with their classmates in person. Research by Bonnie Nagel, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Oregon Health & Science University, found that the feeling of loneliness is a key predictor for depression and suicidal ideation in children aged 9 to 10.

In addition to heightened feelings of loneliness during the pandemic, it is likely that stress levels have also increased significantly in young people due to isolation during a period of time in their lives where social connections are critical for development.

Being a millennial myself, I can confirm that both I, as well as friends of mine, have experienced heightened stress and anxiety during these uncertain times. Friends of mine who are still in school, for the most part, disliked doing classes through Zoom without going on campus to see their friends.

The best advice to combat this crisis is to implement lifestyle changes that can boost mood, lower stress, eliminate anxiety and improve eating habits. Adding a 15–20-minute walk around the neighborhood to your daily routine, eliminating fast food from your diet, and regularly practicing mindfulness- based stress reduction can help with a lot of these issues.

Therapy, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), has also been shown to be helpful for those suffering from loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Some of these therapeutic modalities, like CBT, hypnosis and mindfulness training can now be accessed online and no longer require regular office visits. If you or a loved one is suffering from any of the above, please consider reaching out to a therapist; it can be a very useful and helpful resource.


E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with both a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He is fascinated by the interactions of brain, gut and microbiome, and the role of nutrition in influencing the health of our microbiome, as well as our own well-being.


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