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The big idea

Surgeon general sounds the alarm over youth mental health

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy sounded the alarm Tuesday about the crisis in youth mental health in a dramatic report that blames the pandemic for escalating ills like depression. The report also makes terribly clear things were awful well before the coronavirus hit American shores.

“Our obligation to act is not just medical—it’s moral,” Murthy wrote in the 53-page on “Protecting Youth Mental Health” advisory. “This is the moment to demand change—with our voices and with our actions.”

The report makes for sobering reading. It leaves no doubt you can add youth mental troubles to the long list of ills the pandemic did not create but certainly highlighted or worsened — like a creaky and iniquitous health care system, fragile supply chains, or the plight of Americans living paycheck to paycheck.

“Too often, young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth—telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough,” Murthy wrote in introduction. “That comes as progress on legitimate, and distressing, issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence feels too slow.”

Political fallout

That, of course, connects it to politics.

In early December, my colleagues Jacqueline Alemany and Theodoric Meyer reported on a bleak Harvard Institute of Politics poll that found 52 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds believe that American democracy is either “in trouble,” or “failing.” Just seven percent of young Americans view the U.S. as a “healthy democracy.”

Murthy’s intervention was notable in part because surgeon general advisories are generally meant for “significant public health challenges that demand the American people’s immediate attention,” like tobacco or HIV/AIDS.

It also has interesting political salience: While parents angry about the impact on children of school closures or vanishing day care have asserted their clout at the ballot box this year, the report makes the point that the crisis in youth mental health goes back years.

From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%,” the report said.

“Between 2011 and 2015, youth psychiatric visits to emergency departments for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges increased by 28%. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the US increased by 57%,” according to the advisory.

Still, things have become considerably worse since the arrival of disease that has killed more than 791,000 on U.S. soil and more than 5.2 million worldwide.

“Early estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest there were tragically more than 6,600 deaths by suicide among the 10-24 age group in 2020,” the report said.

Anxiety and depression

A study of 80,000 youth around the world found symptoms of anxiety and depression had doubled during the pandemic, with one in five young people reporting the former and one in four reporting the latter.

“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” the report said.

Last April, during the first school closures and lockdowns, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) nonprofit reported minors accounted for half the people seeking help from its National Sexual Assault Hotline for the first time ever. And 79 percent said they were living with their perpetrator.

Not only were kids locked up with the people abusing them, the closures kept them away from what are called “required reporters,” people like teachers and counselors who must go to the authorities if they reasonably suspect a child is being abused.

RAINN spokeswoman Erinn Robinson told me last night the proportion still hovers around 50 percent, “a bit lower than the peak, but still significantly higher than our historic average” of about 40 percent.

You can see evidence of young people struggling in Montgomery County, where I live. Last month, WTOP radio reported county police had been called to respond to 48 reported assaults in schools, “more than the school system saw for the entire school year three years ago.”

In October, my colleague Erin Blakemore filed this harrowing dispatch: “Overdoses and emotional difficulties. Crushing loneliness and stress. Grief and depression. The pandemic has accelerated mental health crises among children.”

“The problem has ballooned to emergency proportions because of a shortage of child psychiatrists, a growing wave of suicidality and the ongoing stress over covid-19, a group of experts say.”

Erin reported the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association were declaring a “national state of emergency in children’s mental health.”

But, again, the pandemic made things much worse, but they weren’t great before.

A horrifying October 2020 report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, covering 2009-2019, noted one in six students reported making a suicide plan in 2019, a 44 percent jump from 2009. The numbers were higher for female, Black, and sexual-minority students.

That report also observed “[s]chool and family connectedness have been shown to promote positive mental health and reduce risk for violence, suicide, substance use, and sexual risk during adolescence and well into adulthood.”

What's happening now

Jan. 6 committee to hold Mark Meadows in criminal contempt

“Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a letter sent to Meadows Tuesday evening that the panel’s patience had run out and dismissed his argument that much of the information the committee sought was covered by executive privilege because it involved his duties as an aide to Trump at the White House,” Jacqueline Alemany and Josh Dawsey report.

4.2 million Americans quit their jobs in October as workers continued to search for better opportunities

“Some 4.2 million Americans quit their jobs in October as churn in the labor market continued to mark the economic recovery nearly two years into the pandemic,” Eli Rosenberg reports.

  • “The number of people who left jobs for other opportunities in October made up 2.8 percent of the workforce, the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey.”

U.S. Supreme Court again tackles public funding for religious schools

“The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear a challenge by two Christian families to a Maine tuition assistance program that excludes private schools that promote religious beliefs, giving its conservative justices a chance to further expand public funding of religiously based entities,” Reuters’s Andrew Chung reports.

Crypto CEOs to testify before lawmakers weighing greater regulation

“The chief executive officers of half a dozen cryptocurrency firms are set to appear before Congress on Wednesday, as lawmakers and regulators wrestle with how to bring the more than $2 trillion market under government oversight,” the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Kiernan reports.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Utility giants agree will no longer share sensitive records ICE used to track the public

“A nationwide group of utility companies that provided sensitive data from millions of Americans’ cable, phone and power bills to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other government agencies has agreed to end the practice in response to concerns the information was being misused to track the general public,” Drew Harwell reports.

“After the sales were revealed in February by The Washington Post, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pushed the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange to end the sale of more than 170 million people’s names, home addresses, Social Security numbers and other details gathered from companies selling the essential elements of modern life.”

Amazon’s search results are full of ads ‘unlawfully deceiving’ consumers, new complaint to FTC claims

“More than a quarter of search results on Amazon are paid ads, according to the complaint filed by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions. But because the company doesn’t clearly label sponsored results, Amazon could be ‘unlawfully deceiving’ customers into clicking on them without knowing, a practice that raises questions about the integrity and quality of Amazon’s search results, the petition alleges,” Cat Zakrzewski and Jay Greene report.

… and beyond

Beijing silenced Peng Shuai in 20 minutes, then spent weeks on damage control

“Twenty minutes was all it took to mobilize after Peng Shuai, the tennis star and one of China’s most famous athletes, went online and accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault,” the New York Times’s Paul Mozur, Muyi Xiao, Jeff Kao and Gray Beltran report.

“China began a multifaceted propaganda campaign that was at once sophisticated and clumsy. Inside the country, officials used internet controls to scrub almost all references to the accusation and restrict digital spaces where people might discuss it. At the same time, they activated a widely followed network of state-media commentators, backed by a chorus of fake Twitter accounts, to try to punch back at critics abroad, the analyses show.”

The rise of omicron

First lab results show omicron has ‘much more extensive escape’ from antibodies than previous variants

“The first in-depth laboratory study of the omicron variant of the coronavirus offers a mixed bag of bad news and good news,” Carolyn Y. Johnson and Joel Achenbach report.

  • The bad: The variant “eludes a great deal of the protection provided by disease-fighting antibodies. That means people who previously recovered from a bout of covid-19 could be reinfected. And people who have been vaccinated could suffer breakthrough infections.”
  • The good: “Even if the power of vaccines is diminished in the face of omicron, there’s still some protection afforded against the virus.” And booster shots could still be key.

Pfizer, BioNTech vaccine neutralises Omicron with three shots

“BioNTech and Pfizer said on Wednesday a three-shot course of their COVID-19 vaccine was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test and they could deliver an Omicron-based vaccine in March 2022 if needed,” Reuters’s Ludwig Burger reports.

The Biden agenda

‘It’s a sore spot for a lot of people’: Why officials are raising questions about Biden’s vaccine donations

“[Biden’s] aides have pledged from the podium and in front of lawmakers that the administration would not use the vaccine to curry diplomatic favors the way Russia and China have. But a recent trip by Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor from New Mexico, to Myanmar is raising concerns among global health advocates and even senior Biden officials about the extent to which the U.S. is mixing politics with public health needs in deciding where to send its vaccine doses, according to two senior officials working on the effort to distribute the vaccine globally and three people familiar with the matter,” Politico’s Erin Banco reports.

Biden’s Supreme Court commission endorses final report noting bipartisan public support for term limits

“A bipartisan panel of legal scholars examining possible changes to the Supreme Court voted unanimously Tuesday to submit to President Biden its final report, which describes public support for imposing term limits but ‘profound disagreement’ about adding justices,” Ann E Marimow reports.

Kremlin: No date set for more talks after Putin-Biden call

“Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed to appoint envoys to continue talks on security in Europe in light of escalating tensions over Russia’s massing tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine, but the Kremlin said Wednesday it was unclear when the talks would happen,” the Associated Press’s Dasha Litvinova, Aamer Madhani and Vladimir Isachenkov report.

D.C. approved redistricting plan, visualized

“D.C. lawmakers voted Tuesday in favor of a plan to redraw the boundaries of the city’s wards, making the fast-growing Navy Yard neighborhood a part of the historically low-income Ward 8 and the easternmost section of Capitol Hill a part of Ward 7. The map will require a second vote by the D.C. Council later this month to complete a process that has been contentious across the city,” Julie Zauzmer Weil and Michael Brice-Saddler report.

Hot on the left

Opinion: No, the Constitution is not ‘neutral’ on abortion

“The Constitution exists in no small part to protect the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority. The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment exist to put some issues off limits for majority rule — as Justice Robert H. Jackson put it in a 1943 ruling protecting the right of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren not to be forced to salute the flag, ‘to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities.’ The Supreme Court, in protecting abortion rights, isn’t telling women what to do: It is preserving space for them to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies,” deputyeditorial page editor Ruth Marcus writes.

Hot on the right

David Brooks writes an elegy for conservatism

Today, what passes for the worldview of ‘the right’ is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism. The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression,” Brooks writes for the Atlantic.

  • “I recently went back and reread the yellowing conservatism books that I have lugged around with me over the decades. I wondered whether I’d be embarrassed or ashamed of them, knowing what conservatism has devolved into. I have to tell you that I wasn’t embarrassed; I was enthralled all over again, and I came away thinking that conservatism is truer and more profound than ever—and that to be a conservative today, you have to oppose much of what the Republican Party has come to stand for.”

Today in Washington

Biden will tour the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority at 3 p.m.

At 3:30 p.m., the president will speak about the new infrastructure law. 

Biden will arrive back at the White House at 7:15 p.m.

In closing

The Natural History Museum in London’s replica T. rex is looking awfully festive this holiday season. The NYT's Maria Cramer has the details on the 100-long hour process of knitting a sweater fit for a dinosaur.

"[Snahal Patel, chief executive of Jack Masters, the knitwear company in Leicester, England, that made the sweater] said the first sweater was too large. Getting a turtleneck over the head of the dinosaur was also a problem, said Mr. Patel, who recalled trying to push and pull the material on.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.