Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report

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In his December 2021 report, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. This important report has recommendations for individuals, families, employers, and others to improve the mental health of children, adolescents and young adults.

“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.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

Murthy continued, “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.”

The report is a call to action for various groups. Here are some key takeaways that highlight social-emotional learning as part of the solution.

We Can Take Action

Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings. This includes creating positive, safe, and affirming educational environments and expanding programming that promotes healthy development–social and emotional learning being a prime example. Also, as a society we need to provide a continuum of supports to meet the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of children and youth. To achieve this, we must also expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.

What Young People Can Do 

Since many of the challenges young people face are outside of their control, we need a whole-of-society effort to support children’s mental health and wellbeing from birth to adulthood. That said, below are important steps children and young people themselves can take to protect, improve, and advocate for their mental health and that of their family, friends, and neighbors: 

  • Remember that mental health challenges are real, common, and treatable.
  • Ask for help.
  • Invest in healthy relationships.
  • Find ways to serve.
  • Learn and practice techniques to manage stress and other difficult emotions.
  • Take care of your body and mind.
  • Be intentional about your use of social media, video games, and other technologies.
  • Be a source of support for others.

What Family Members and Caregivers Can Do

Families and caregivers play a critical role in providing the safe, stable, and nurturing environments and relationships young people need to thrive. Below are recommendations for how families and caregivers can engage with kids during this youth mental health crisis, helping them become more resilient and addressing emerging: 

  • Be the best role model you can be for young people by taking care of your own mental and physical health. 
  • Help children and youth develop strong, safe, and stable relationships with you and other supportive adults. 
  • Encourage children and youth to build healthy social relationships with peers. 
  • Do your best to provide children and youth with a supportive, stable, and predictable home and neighborhood environment. 
  • Try to minimize negative influences and behaviors in young people’s lives. 
  • Ensure children and youth have regular check-ups with a pediatrician, family doctor, or other health care professional. 
  • Look out for warning signs of distress, and seek help when needed. 
  • Minimize children’s access to means of self-harm, including firearms and prescription medications. 
  • Be attentive to how children and youth spend time online. Digital technology can help young people connect with friends and family, learn about current events, express themselves, and access telehealth and other resources.
  • Be a voice for mental health in your community.

What Employers Can Do

Employers can play an outsized role in supporting the mental health of children and young people. They can directly help younger employees, such as high school students working part-time jobs or young adults starting out in the labor force after high school or college. For example, employers can provide affordable health insurance that covers mental health needs. Employers can also support children and youth indirectly. Below are some recommendations for how employers can support the mental health of young people:

  • Provide access to comprehensive, affordable, and age-appropriate mental health care for all employees and their families, including dependent children. 
  • Implement policies that address underlying drivers of employee mental health challenges, including both home and workplace stressors. Employers should: Offer paid family leave and sick leave where feasible. 
  • Create a workplace culture that affirms the importance of the mental health and wellbeing of all employees and their families.
  • Regularly assess employees’ sense of wellbeing within the workplace.

Want to do more in response to the youth mental health crisis? Find out how.

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