Alaska’s youths are experiencing severe mental health crises, which spurred the nation’s surgeon general to visit the state in an effort to help remedy the problem.
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Dr. Vivek Murthy listened to concerns from behavioral health providers at a consortium at the University of Alaska at Anchorage last week.
“This is the defining public health issue of our time,” Murthy said. “Our kids are telling us they’re in crisis. We’ve seen suicide rates, depression, and anxiety go up at staggering levels. That was happening before the pandemic, and the pandemic made it worse. What we’re unfortunately seeing is that Alaskans have one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the country. And we’ve got to do something about this.”
Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the state, noted that suicide is the leading cause of death for residents between the ages of 15-24 in the state.
“And if you look at suicide rates between 15 to 34-year-olds, we lead the country. We saw a significant increase in our emergency departments of young girls coming in [who were] suicidal, hopeless, and needing help. It’s heartbreaking to sit side-by-side with a [youth] with a lack of resources. And trying to figure out how to connect with those people. One out of every three of our youth said they were sad or hopeless for at least two weeks out of every month. And one out of five said they seriously thought about hurting themselves.”
— Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer, Alaska
Renee Rafferty, regional director of behavioral health services at Providence Health and Services Alaska, said patients are waiting for several days to receive care. And the medical center does not have the resources it needs to address the problem.
“We’re trying to launch an urgent care (center) for youth,” Rafferty said. “We do not have the capital with these resources. Although we want to deliver services, we don’t have the dollars to do that. We’re excited to provide these services, and we need infrastructure to help.”
Murthy discussed the role social media plays in youth mental health, and highlighted some details from a report he recently issued about the subject. He was asked if he had any recommendations about how long a high school student should spend on social media on any given day.
“I wish I could say there was an exact number that was right for every kid. Every child is a bit different. But we know that when kids are spending three hours or more a day on social media, those kids face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms. And right now, the average use is three-and-a-half hours a day among adolescents. So that’s really concerning.”
— Dr. Vivek Murthy, US surgeon general
Some kids’ health might be fine if they use social media a little more than three hours a day, but others could be at risk, even if they only use it for half that amount of time, Murthy said.
“We have to try to understand what else is happening in those kids’ lives,” he said. “Where we get really worried is when social media is impacting how our kids feel about themselves and others; when it’s taking away from their sleep, when it’s impacting the time they’re spending in-person with other kids, and when it’s affecting how they function in school and with their families.”
Murthy said he is focused on investing in treatment, expanding access to care, addressing prevention, and getting to the root causes of what’s driving youth mental health crises.
“And that’s one of the reasons our office has been focused on loneliness and isolation. Bullying and harassment are happening online and offline to kids. You put all this together, you have a youth mental health crisis. I met person after person, organization after organization, that has done so much to help access to care. We need more resources. But even with the limited resources we have now, I was able to hear so many stories of progress.”
Trevor Storrs, president and CEO of Alaska Children’s Trust, said social media is just one factor that contributes to the mental health of youth in the state, however.
“No matter what our kids are facing, there’s always a challenge,” Storrs said. “In my time, it was alcohol and drugs. It’s not going to go away. We’re going to deal with social media, and then there’s going to be the next thing. But as complex as this issue is, some of the things we can do aren’t complex.
We need to invest in true upstream thinking. Rather than just talking about the adverse childhood experiences, let’s actually talk about the positive childhood experiences. When we invest in that, the kids and families start gaining the knowledge, skills, and resources to thrive. When they thrive, they can take anything on.”