The U.S. surgeon general spoke to the Senate on Tuesday about the surging mental health crises among America’s youth due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a Senate hearing, Dr. Vivek Murthy pointed to a string of factors impacting children’s mental health, from social media that undermines a child’s sense of self-worth, to cyberbullying that enables any child anywhere to be tormented. The surgeon general points out the pandemic made it all worse.
“All of these factors affecting youth mental health were true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the last two years have dramatically changed young people’s experiences at home, at school, and in their communities. It’s not just the unfathomable number of deaths or the instability, it’s also the pervasive sense of uncertainty and the nagging sense of fear,” Murthy said.
A bipartisan group of senators is putting together legislation that includes greater access to mental health care for children and young people.
During the hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) confronted Murthy about two critical issues facing the next generation: the spike in recreational marijuana use and the rising trend in young people claiming to be transgender.
Lankford points out that marijuana has been shown to increase teen depression, but little is being done to get that message out to people.
“We’ve seen substance abuse go down in several areas during COVID-19,” Lankford said. “The exception has been marijuana use, that has gone up. I’m sure there’s a lot of factors on that, obviously the availability. So many different states have found ways to be able to make marijuana legal but for youth and adolescents, this has become a very serious issue.”
Murthy noted that awareness of the effects of marijuana use and depression among youth is overshadowed by the false belief that the drug is harmless.
“There is a perception that marijuana is completely harmless in children,” he said. “Our data tells us otherwise. Our data tells us in fact that a portion, a substantial minority of people who use marijuana will actually develop an addiction to marijuana and that number is significantly higher among youth. When kids also have underlying mental health conditions, the impact of marijuana can also be more significant.”
Murthy added, “I think we need to be responsible in how we teach our kids about marijuana, how we talk to families, and I think health care providers also need to be empowered to have these conversations with youth early on, as well as teachers.”
Sen. Lankford emphasized that youth see their role models using the drug, which is contributing to the problem.
He also discussed issues with gender identity among children and the long-term effects of gender dysphoria.
“Puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, receiving surgical procedures to attempt to change the appearance from your biological sex among children,” the senator said. “There have been some studies that have happened but there’s also studies around that are raising new questions for adolescents in those areas. You’ve got someone, 13, 12, 14 years old that are taking some of these medications.”
Lankford continued, “Long-term, they have serious effects, and when you’re dealing with a 12 or 13-year-old, what is the standard for them when they’re living with those consequences when they’re 20, 30, 40? Is there responsibility to be able to put some warnings out and some precautions in this?”
Dr. Murthy explained that more work must be done to educate people on the medical risks associated with gender-altering treatments.
“I think families need clear guidance from the medical community … as their research has evolved and how best to take care of children in these circumstances,” Murthy stated. “One of the things I worry about is that change propagates slowly in the medical profession. We’ve got to do a better job putting our best minds together in government and outside of government in terms of medical expertise to figure out how best to care for these kids and make sure that caregivers and families have that information. We’ve got more work to do there.”
Dr. Murthy further explained that “science and compassion” are necessary when providing healthcare.
“Science and compassion are what should guide care … not politics, not opinions, not bias but science and compassion. We’ve got to bring the benefit of science, deliver that compassionately to families,” he concluded.