The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges for our country. The disease has taken more than a million lives in the United States, and adversely affected tens of millions more. The U.S. is now facing a mental health crisis on top of and in part because of the health emergency these last two years. Between lockdowns, restrictions and virtual schooling and work, we have lacked the human interaction and physical activity that helped keep us mentally and emotionally healthy. These situations have also led to harmful routines and bad habits for many of us, most acutely among kids and adolescents. There is a real need for government institutions, non-profit organizations, and companies to step up and provide mental health services – especially for our nation’s young people.
Nearly half of Gen Z (46 percent) said that their mental health was worse than before the pandemic, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association. And now, as schools let out for the summer, kids will be left to their own devices – both literally and figuratively – to find ways to occupy themselves and their minds. Those struggling with emotional challenges already may find the summertime detachment more than they can handle.
It’s important that parents and community leaders identify and support activities to keep young people engaged and active once school is out. Civic summer recreation programs, community pools, and camps can provide important and inclusive outlets for kids and teenagers. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline will launch its nationwide 3-digit hotline – 988 – so that anyone can quickly get in touch with a mental health professional whenever they need may it.
At least one nationwide company is opening its doors for teens to use their facilities free of cost this summer. Planet Fitness is launching its Pass that will allow high schoolers from 14 to 19 to exercise for free at their locations across the U.S. and Canada.
Empowering physical activity and health is paramount in fighting the mental health challenges our youngest generations now face. Nearly all teens, 92 percent, agree that regular physical activity helps them feel better mentally.
Lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic effectively hamstrung parents and children for nearly two years. Classrooms and offices went virtual, and the majority of the day was spent behind screens. While adults had to manage the same circumstances as their children, their situations allowed for far more freedom. Three adolescents reported that their usual health and fitness routines were disrupted as a result of the last two years. Combine that with the findings from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in which only 15 percent of middle and high school aged children reported having met the recommended hour of physical activity a day, and it is quite clear that the pandemic has exacerbated an adolescent health crisis.
Fitness centers are a key cog in the fight against COVID-19. Programs like Planet Fitness’s High School Summer Pass can provide access to safe and reliable exercise, which is crucial in order to build a robust immune system. The CDC found that the rate of body mass index (BMI) increase doubled during the pandemic, compared to pre-pandemic levels, in kids ages 2 to 19. Exercise and a strong immune system can significantly lower the risks of comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes that contribute to long term health consequences.
Raised in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, I know too well about the lack of resources and opportunities that low-income minority populations struggle with. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Whether it be healthcare access, educational and wealth gaps, or discrimination, underserved communities are at the forefront of the fight for our health.
As the pandemic seems to near its end, the physical and mental health challenges of the last two years cannot be forgotten. We must commit to strengthening our youths’ physical and mental health – and only by working together can we move forward toward a healthier America.
Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., was the 17th surgeon general of the United States. He advises Planet Fitness on physical and mental health issues. Opinions expressed are those of the author.