Senator Sullivan hosts Alaska Youth Mental Health Roundtable at UAA Consortium Library

Published: Jun. 28, 2023 at 5:03 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -Senator Dan Sullivan and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy held a press conference, Monday, June 26, at the UAA campus in Anchorage. The topic of discussion was mental health challenges impacting Alaska’s youth and young people across the country.

Senator Sullivan hosted the Alaska Youth Mental Health Roundtable, which took place at UAA’s Consortium Library. Surgeon General Dr. Murthy and Senator Sullivan shared their understanding of the state’s mental health crisis that was gained from their meetings and discussions with Alaska mental health providers and experts.

“It truly is a crisis. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, that youth mental health is the defining public health challenge of our time. It’s affecting our kids’ wellbeing across the board,” Murthy said at the conference.

Sullivan and Murthy, along with Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink spoke about the specific concerns Alaska faces including isolation and the lack of mental health treatment options.

“One in two adults report measurable levels of loneliness and isolation and the impacts are even higher among young people,” added Murthy.

Dr. Murthy noted, “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

According to an advisory, 95 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, say they use a social media app, and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” Murthy says social media has good uses, but it’s unclear how broadly it could negatively impact young people.

A recent federal survey of teens found that, on average, they spent almost four hours a day on social media, which has contributed to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and high exposure to hate-based content.

Nearly one in three adolescents report using screens until midnight or later, Murthy says, and most are using social media during that time.

“Things are not going well right now, they are struggling, we see record rate of suicide, depression and anxiety,” Murthy said. “Here in Alaska, we have one of the highest youth suicide rates. Across the country, we see that one in three adolescent girls seriously considered taking their own life in 2021.”

“If 50% of the young girls in Alaska and America are thinking about suicide, it’s kind of like nothing else should matter,” Sullivan said. “Like that is a fundamental area where we need policy focus.”

Sullivan said he’d like to see penalties on companies that allow underage children to be on their platforms. He also wants big tech companies to provide public service announcements and be more transparent about their data, adding it’s especially concerning to hear about how social media can affect girls.

“Right now they’re supposed to be the age of 13 and it’s not really well enforced at all,” Sullivan said. “So we’re looking at enhancing the age and then enhancing the penalties of the use onto the companies who have to take more responsibility to see who is using.”

Surgeon General Dr. Murthy is also making recommendations to fix this, including suggesting that households establish tech-free zones, teach kids about responsible online behavior, and limiting time on social media platforms.

The American Psychological Association has also issued its first-ever social media guidance that recommends that parents closely monitor their teens’ usage online and that tech companies reconsider features like endless scrolling and the ‘like’ button.