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Surgeon general says kids need to be part of solution amid youth mental health crisis

STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

(LOS ANGELES) — Facing a growing mental health crisis among America’s teens and young adults, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says the problem is not something adults can fix alone.

Adults need “to make sure that we’re hearing from kids so that their stories are our guiding light,” Murthy said. “Ultimately, we will know when we’ve reached the finish line when they’re doing well and they tell us they’re doing well and when data tells us that as well.”

After declaring a national advisory on the youth mental health crisis late last year, Murthy is now participating in a two-day conference called the Youth Mental Wellness Now! Summit, hosted by The California Endowment.

“I’m also particularly excited that we’re going to have a chance to hear from young people here in L.A. today,” Dr. Murthy told ABC News.

According to Murthy, adults need to hear directly from the youth what the problems are, and what they can do to help. The summit will feature actors and activists including Kendrick Sampson, best known for his roles in Insecure, The Vampire Diaries and How to Get Away with Murder, and Jordyn Woods, a model, actress and mental health advocate.

They will join California-based youth leaders Ja’Nell Gore from South Kern Sol whose parent company is YR Media, and Xochitil Larios from Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice in a fireside chat with the surgeon general.

The purpose of the youth-led summit is to create a national movement around youth mental health led by young people through the sharing of stories and to galvanize organizations to commit to support. They have concrete commitments in excess of $255 million.

Other organizations partnering with The California Endowment to host the event include The Steve Fund, California Children’s Trust, Youth Organize! California, YR Media and Revolve Impact.

Sometimes, the voice of young people is missing from initiatives to help them, but a strength of this summit is the central role young voices have.

“We wanted young people center stage,” said Dr. Bob Ross, CEO of The California Endowment. “We wanted to make sure that any go-forward strategy for investing in access to mental health services and optimizing the mental health and well-being of young people would be informed with young people as the experts, and additionally, having important and key adult allies more as listeners than talkers. You know, a lot of times you have these conferences, and it’s the expert adults that are doing all the talking.”

Gore emphasized that one importance of this summit is that “youth need to be able to hear other young people tell them that it’s OK to struggle with things.”

“This [is] like one of the first conferences of its kind,” said Jasmine Dellafosse, a nationally recognized youth activist who will emcee the summit.

“Often young people across California have been showing up and trying to address these issues for decades,” she said. “It’s actually an opportunity to connect policy and change with actual voices on the ground, and young people who were championing, you know, the issues in their communities while also still being extremely under-resourced.”

Murthy blames the youth mental health crisis on loneliness, isolation, economic hardship, uncertainty, and online and offline bullying, which were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Other existential challenges like climate change, racism and violence in the community have also caused youth to lose hope.

In addition to these factors, Ross highlights “exposure to trauma in early childhood,” often rooted in race, social factors, the criminal justice system and violence, as being a primary cause of the crisis. He also acknowledged the “stigma behind mental health and seeking mental health supports” as perpetuating the crisis.

Murthy said the government’s three-pronged approach to addressing the crisis is to “expand access to treatment,” “invest in prevention,” “and eradicate the stigma around mental illness, which still prevents youth from coming forward and asking for help.”

In a show of solidarity, more than 30 organizations to date have announced 75 commitments in response to the surgeon general’s call-to-action.

To aid with expanding access to mental health services, the Vista Group has committed to investing $250 million over the next three years into U.S. providers of adolescent and youth mental health services. Pinterest has also designated more than a third of their $10 million commitment to advance emotional well-being to support NGOs (non-government organizations) and nonprofits focused on youth to expand access.

The UCLA Center for Scholars & Storytellers will partner with Disney Branded Kids, CAA, Joy Coalition, YouTubeKids and leading showrunners to research best practices on how to incorporate mental health messaging to positively impact youth through their programming and marketing. The CW is committed to developing storylines in its programming to inform and support audiences.

Other organizations are committed to supporting youth utilizing digital technologies. Meta plans to enhance parental supervision controls and introduce a new feature called “nudges,” which are notifications that encourage teens to switch to a different topic if they’re repeatedly looking at the same topic.

“Today, again, it’s just a step forward,” Murthy said. “We’re not done until every child in America has access to good mental health care.”

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