Our Young People Are Not OK

A rare advisory from the US Surgeon General's Office warns that our young people are struggling with their mental health. (Shutterstock)

By Michael McElroy

December 16, 2021

A rare public advisory from the US Surgeon General’s Office warns of a mental health emergency among young people. Here are ways you can help, North Carolina. 

Young people are facing “unprecedented” and “devastating” challenges, the nation’s top doctor said last month, and the pandemic is only part of the problem.

In a rare public advisory from the US Surgeon General’s office, Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in a new report that anxiety over social media and self-image, fears about climate change and racial justice, financial insecurity and the simple pressures of being young in a complicated world add up to a dangerous combination.

“Recent national surveys of young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges — in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.”

“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy added.

According to NC Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, nearly 450,000 children in North Carolina lived with a mental health condition in 2019. 

The pandemic made nearly all of the metrics worse, Murthy said.

“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have

exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”

But while the report was meant to serve as an alarm bell, it also gave several ways that parents, communities and young people themselves can help solve the problem.

“If we seize this moment, step up for our children and their families in their moment of need, and lead with inclusion, kindness, and respect, we can lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation,” Murthy wrote. 

Here are some of the ways the surgeon general says you can help. 

Young People

Remember that mental health challenges are real, common, and treatable. “Struggling with your mental health does not mean you are broken or that you did something wrong.”

Ask for help. “Reaching out to others can be hard and takes courage, but it is worth the effort and reminds us we are not alone.”

Invest in healthy relationships. “Find people who support and care about you and have open and honest conversations with them.”

Find ways to serve. “Helping others when you are the one struggling can seem counterintuitive. But service is a powerful antidote to isolation, and it reminds us that we have value to add to the world.”

Family Members and Caregivers

Be the best role model you can be for young people by taking care of your own mental and physical health. “Young people often learn behaviors and habits from what they see around them.” 

Do your best to provide children and youth with a supportive, stable, and predictable home and neighborhood environment. “A lot may be outside of your control,” the report said, but “try to help children stick to a regular and predictable daily schedule, such as regular dinnertime and bedtime,” and “be thoughtful about whether and how to discuss stressful topics such as financial and marital problems.”

Look out for warning signs of distress. “Signs of distress in children

can show up in a number of ways, such as irritability, anger, withdrawal, and other changes in their thoughts, appearance, performance at school, sleeping or eating patterns, or other behaviors. 

If you notice concerning changes in your child, let them know you’re there and ready to support them however they need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help by talking to a doctor, nurse, or other professional or looking into other available resources in your community.”

Be attentive to how children and youth spend time online. “Digital technology can help young people connect with friends and family,” the report said, but can also produce “negative experiences online, such as being bullied, finding harmful information, and negatively comparing themselves to others.”

Community Organizations

Educate the public about the importance of mental health, and reduce negative stereotypes, bias, and stigma around mental illness. “It’s particularly important to address misconceptions in populations that have an outsized influence over young people, such as families, educators, health care professionals, juvenile justice officials, online influencers, and the media.”

Address the unique mental health needs of at-risk youth, such as racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, and youth with disabilities. “Youth-serving organizations should think intentionally about how and to whom program services are offered. For example, actively recruit and engage populations who have historically been prevented from equal access to opportunities and may benefit the most from services.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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