‘Nothing else should matter’: At Anchorage roundtable, Sullivan addresses youth mental health crisis with U.S. Surgeon General

 US Sen. Dan Sullivan (left) and US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speak at a roundtable in Anchorage addressing youth mental health in Alaska. (Rachel Cassandra/Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called youth mental health “the defining public health challenge of our time” at a roundtable in Anchorage on Monday. He was speaking at an event organized by U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan addressing Alaska’s youth mental health crisis. 

Sullivan said the crisis is severe and profound. 

“It’s the pervasive depression, anxiety, and even focus on suicide of America’s youth,” Sullivan said. “And according to one expert, there’s never been a generation of young Americans this depressed, this anxious, and this fragile. And, of course, the numbers that we’ve seen- the data that relates to this is shocking.”

For teens, Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the country. American Indian and Alaska Native people are at the greatest risk

In May, Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic in the United States. And he said young people experience even more loneliness than adults. He also released a report in May on the harms of social media on youth. He spoke about how it can distort values.

“For too many young people, particularly on social media, the information that they’re getting, is an overload, frankly, of information that drives them to compare themselves constantly to other kids,” Murthy said. “And to chase what I think of as the false gods of success and happiness, which are fame, power, and money.”

Sullivan is interested in legislation that addresses the harms of social media. In 2021, he argued that Congress should consider time limits on technology for youth. And at the round table, he said future legislation could increase the age limit for social media from 13 to 16. Though, he said it’s unclear how those limits would be enforced. 

Both Sullivan and Murthy talked about the importance of accessing data collected by social media companies. Current research shows that people who use social media experience higher risks of depression, anxiety, and addiction. But detailed data could help paint a clearer picture. 

Sullivan said legislation could force technology companies to release that data. 

“I mean, can you imagine any other company in America saying, ‘You know, sorry, we have data that may or may not show that what we’re doing is harming kids, but we’re not going to give it to you,’” said Sullivan. “Well, I think you’re gonna see some laws here soon saying, ‘No, dammit, you are going to give it to us.’”

Sullivan didn’t make any clear promises for future legislation or funding. But, he said, when one in three girls nationally are considering suicide, “nothing else should matter.”

RELATED: Alaska teens, tweens steer peers away from vaping and smoking

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at rcassandra@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Rachel here.

Previous articleAnchorage Mayor Bronson picks permanent chief of staff, fifth of his tenure
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Monday, June 26, 2023