The nation's children are facing an "epidemic of mental health challenges," but only partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
"We've seen that many children have lost loved ones, [as] 140,000 kids lost a caregiver," Murthy said on CNN's "State of the Union." "Their lives are turned upside down. They haven't been able to see friends as often as they would. It's taken a toll. That's why we've seen anxiety and depression rates go up among kids."
But the nation's children were struggling long before the pandemic, said Murthy, who earlier this month issued an advisory about the mental health of the nation's younger population.
"In the decade before the pandemic, we saw a 40% increase in the number of high school students who felt persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness," he said. "We had increases in suicide rates among kids to alarming levels, so our children have been struggling for a while."
Murthy said he issued his advisory because he believes the nation's adults "have a moral obligation to take action to support our kids."
"They could be doing so much better than they are, and every child deserves a shot at good health," said Murthy.
The mental health concerns stretch to even young children, said Murthy.
"I think about this not just as a surgeon general or a doctor, but as a dad," he said. "I have two small kids, they're 5 and 3, and I've seen the impact of the pandemic on them."
The surgeon general said that in the days since his advisory, he's heard from parents from around the country who are worried about their children.
"There are steps we can take," said Murthy. "We laid out concrete recommendations for 11 sectors, including individuals and families, government, technology companies, schools, health care workers, because we all have a role to play in improving the mental health of our children."
Parents can help by starting a conversation with their children to let them know that it's okay if they are struggling and they need help, said Murthy.
"It's also important for parents to encourage kids to seek out help, even if it's not from them, from a school counselor or teacher," he said. "Many kids are struggling but don't know if it's okay for them to ask for help."
Meanwhile, Murthy said he understands the fatigue and frustration many people are experiencing with the pandemic, but that shouldn't obscure the "tremendous progress" that has been made over the past two years.
"We've lost so many people and our lives have been changed fundamentally," said Murthy. "[But] in studies recently done, we have saved more than a million lives because of vaccination efforts this past year alone."
Tools have also been developed to learn to live with the virus, said Murthy, and that includes steps other than just vaccines and boosters, but also the use of masks and ventilated spaces.
"I know it's tough right now," he said. "I know there's a prospect of another wave with omicron coming, but we now know more about how to stay safe than we've ever known. If you're vaccinated and boosted, your risk of having a bad outcome with COVID-19 is much, much lower, and we will get to the end of this pandemic."
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