As the surgeon general, part of Vivek H. Murthy’s job is to figure out what ails the country and how we can heal.
His diagnosis: As we have receded from the places and activities where we used to find community, our mental health is worse than ever.
“Our connection to one another as a foundation on which we build a healthy society, as that foundation has crumbled and weakened, we’ve seen that we’re suffering across the board,” he told Dartmouth students and faculty during a panel at the college on Thursday.
“The issue of mental health really has become a national concern, not just a national health concern, but it’s become an economic concern. It’s become a national security concern. It is fundamentally impacting the fabric of society,” Murthy said.
He addressed the audience alongside the six other living surgeons general, to discuss how the country can solve the mental health crisis it is facing.
One in two adults is lonely — the topic of a health advisory Murthy released in May, warning about the mental and physical health risks associated with increased isolation. Suicide is a significant cause of premature death: the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while 29 percent of people will say they experience mental health issues, only 41 percent seek treatment.
The problem also impacts young people. Twenty percent of children have diagnosable mental health problems before they turn 14, and that worsens with age, increasing to 60 to 70 percent of people by age 24.
Sian Leah Beilock, the college’s new president, said addressing mental health is a priority in her career and tenure at Dartmouth.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career exploring how stress impacts the brain and body, and it’s very clear that in order for our students to succeed academically, they need to have appropriate health and wellness skills,” she said. “How we feel is directly linked to how we perform.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, the surgeons general discussed a broad array of solutions: encouraging more doctors to go into primary care, training primary care physicians to address mild behavioral health issues, and fostering greater social connection.
Policy, programs, and culture are a few of the avenues for solutions, like training more mental health providers, making sure insurance companies reimburse adequately, and using telemedicine more extensively and making it available across state lines.
Murthy said efforts should also address social media by creating safety standards comparable to those created for motor vehicles to reduce motor vehicle fatalities. And, he suggested investments in social-emotional learning so children have a foundation for building healthy relationships.
As Murthy sees it, humans evolved over thousands of years to be connected to each other, so we also need to make a cultural shift: instead of viewing independence as success, we should look instead to interdependence.
More connected communities are healthier communities, he said. They fare better economically, have lower rates of violence, and are more resilient against natural disasters and political polarization.
He told students that although the mental health problems facing the country are entrenched, profound, and structural in nature, there is a lot they can do on a human level to address the issue.
“Small moments of human connection make a huge difference in how we feel and how the people around us feel,” he said.
For one thing, pick up the phone when a loved one calls. “It feels different just hearing their voice and then hearing yours,” he said.
He described an exercise he uses to foster connection in his office. During meetings, the staff sets aside 10 minutes where one person interviews another to learn about their hobbies, families, dreams, and disappointments.
“Even that 10 minutes helps us feel more closely connected to them than working with them for an entire year beforehand,” he said.