Expanding awareness of mental health resources and increasing those able to provide help is crucial to addressing the youth mental health crisis, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Thursday during a stop in Chicago.

He told the City Club of Chicago that there was a 57 percent increase in the youth suicide rate in the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, about 44 percent of high school students say they feel “persistently sad and hopeless,” he said.

It takes on average 11 years from when a child first experiences symptoms of mental health struggles to receive help, he added.

“These are all three numbers I keep in my head because they, to me, illustrate how profound this challenge is and why it is, I believe, the defining challenge of this generation,” Murthy said.

Part of the solution is to be more creative about who constitutes the mental health workforce. Along with psychiatrists and psychologists, Murthy said teachers can play a vital role in helping young people with mental health issues, as well as peer support groups, people in the community and those in the workforce like managers.

“So all of these folks constitute the community … they may not be part of the healthcare apparatus as traditionally defined, but they are going to be vital for us to address mental health in Chicago, and certainly all across the country,” he said.

Murthy also said the mental health stigma still lingers in minority communities. He noted that he grew up with a loving family, but he was still never comfortable talking with them about his own mental struggles while growing up.

Additionally, his uncle committed suicide several years ago, and he still wonders if things could have been different if there wasn’t such a stigma about talking about mental health struggles.

Murthy said two things do make him hopeful that society has started to turn the corner on youth mental health.

“One is young people themselves who talk very differently about mental health today than the generations that came before them, and I think in that way young people are showing us a better way forward a more honest, open and real way forward, which is to be honest about how you’re feeling,” he said. “But I think the other thing is like we’re seeing more and more, even in older generations, a recognition that we’ve got to think and talk differently about mental health.”

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