WASHINGTON — U.S. senators agreed during a hearing Thursday the country’s children are going through a youth mental health crisis, though some of the committee’s members disagreed about what role Congress has to play.
Senators detailed a complicated patchwork of issues that contribute to youth mental health challenges, including violence and trauma within schools and their communities, the damaging effects of social media, worry about what a changing climate will look like when they’re adults and hate speech against LGBTQ people.
But senators disagreed about what share of responsibility the federal government has when compared to parents, local schools, community organizations and state agencies.
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, the top Republican on the committee, began the hearing citing statistics about how often young people feel hopeless or contemplate suicide. He also listed the legislation Congress has passed in recent years to enhance mental health services.
But by the end of the first panel, Cassidy told young people watching that the issue cannot be left up to the government, emphasizing individual action.
“We can only do so much. You all can do a heck of a lot more than we can,” Cassidy said.
‘Sense of hopelessness’
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine took a different approach in speaking directly to young people struggling with mental health issues, saying he understood why many of them feel adults have not done enough about problems like gun violence and climate change.
“I think young people’s part of this sense of hopelessness is this feeling that adults have let us down, whether it’s on climate, or guns, or political polarization, or kids getting kicked around by adults for political purposes if they’re marginalized,” Kaine said.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy noted during the hearing that 1 in 5 young people reported making a suicide plan during 2021. The development, he said, is the result of several issues, including isolation, the “harmful” impacts of social media and trauma.
“For many young people, their confidence in the future has been undermined by the serious challenges they are set to inherit from economic inequality and climate change to racism and gun violence,” Murthy said. “This is what they say to me time and time again when I meet with young people around the country.”
Murthy told senators that America’s children cannot “afford us to wait longer to address the youth mental health crisis.”
“Our obligation to act is not just medical, it is moral,” Murthy said. “It’s about fulfilling our most sacred responsibility to care for our children and to secure a better future for them.”
Murthy told lawmakers there are several root causes that they could address, including social media use, funding for school-based programs, rebuilding social and community connections and working to eliminate the “shame and stigma” that some can associate with seeking mental health care.
Attacks on LGBTQ kids
Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin questioned the impact on youth mental health of lawmakers at every level of government introducing and passing bills that are anti-LGBTQ.
Baldwin also said the 988 suicide prevention lifeline is conducting a pilot program that offers “specialized support for people who call, text or chat on 988, who are identifying as LGBTQ.”
Murthy told her he sees mental health challenges and suicide rates in the LGBTQ community as a “five-alarm fire.”
“I think that’s a place where we need to do more when it comes to making the LGBTQ youth feel that they do matter, that they are valued. And too many of them tell me often that they don’t feel that way,” Murthy said. “They often feel left out or bullied or attacked.”
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, raised concerns about the 85 million Americans who are uninsured or underinsured, as well as the 17 million people who are likely to lose Medicaid coverage now that the COVID-19 public health emergency is over.
Katherine Neas, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, said that it is “without question” that people who lose access to health insurance would find it more difficult to access mental health services.
Agreement on dangers of social media
The broadest consensus for congressional action during the hearing came on social media.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said that within two minutes of a teenager downloading the social medial app TikTok, they could be exposed to content glorifying suicide, and within four minutes they could be shown content that celebrates eating disorders.
Republican Sens. Ted Budd of North Carolina, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, among others on the committee, expressed specific concerns about social media’s impact on young people.
“I look at social media today as worse than pornography,” Marshall said. “My sons were exposed to pornography when they were very young because of social media and I think the additive pressures coming from social media today are worse than pornography. Just like we had to set parameters around pornography, we need to do the same thing with social media.”
Murthy told senators that Congress could advance legislation that would actually keep children younger than 13 off social media sites and establish protections for young people’s data privacy.
Murthy said he would support placing a Surgeon General’s warning on social media use, similar to the ones on tobacco products and on alcohol warning of dangers if consumed by pregnant people. But, he said, Congress would need to approve legislation or regulatory authority before he could do that.
The federal government, he said, could also play a role establishing and enforcing safety standards for youth social media use. The effort, Murthy said, could be similar to how the government enforces safety standards on cars and child safety seats.
“We don’t tell parents, ‘Go inspect the tires yourself, check out the engine, make sure the frame is adequately strong,’ because we know that not all parents have the expertise to do this,” Murthy said. “They rely on us establishing standards and then enforcing those with manufacturers.”
“These are incredibly complex platforms that are rapidly evolving, fundamentally changing how our kids see themselves and interact with the world,” Murthy added. “And parents need help here to interpret and understand their safety.”