5 Takeaways from the U.S. Surgeon General’s conversation with On Our Minds hosts Bree and James

By Simran Gupta

Dr. Vivek Murthy is an American physician who serves as the current Surgeon General of the United States. As U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy is responsible for providing the best medical information to the public so that they cannot only improve their health but also lessen the risk of illness and injury.

Recently, Dr. Murthy was featured in two episodes of PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs teen mental health podcast On Our Minds. He spoke with teen co-hosts Bree and James about youth mental health, loneliness and connection, and social media.  Here are some takeaways from their conversation:

Mental health challenges across generations

Past generations have also faced mental health challenges, but the impact has been more profound for today’s young people due to technology and the design of social media platforms. Being bullied at school, for example, is a shared experience across generations. Today, however, bullying and harassment often happen online. “6 in 10 adolescent girls are being approached by strangers on social media in ways that make them feel uncomfortable,” Dr. Murthy said. “I got bullied at times when I was in middle school, but maybe once every now and not at the volume and, and the severity that that kids are experiencing online now.”

Recognition of the vital role of mental health support

Mental health is just as important as physical health, so ready access to mental health support is vital to our overall well-being. “We’ve seen government take more action to help ensure that insurance companies are actually paying for mental health care, as opposed to discriminating against it and treating it as not as important as physical health care,” Dr. Murthy said. “We’ve got to both expand access to treatment so the people who are struggling can get help. We’ve also got to get at the root causes of what’s driving the crisis in the first place. And this is where I think challenges around loneliness and isolation and around social media and its negative impact on mental health become really important to focus on.” 

Parents as support models for mental health 

Parents should be creating safe spaces for their kids to discuss their mental health challenges. As compared to previous generations, today’s young people are under tremendous pressure to succeed, as discussed in the first episode of On Our Minds this season. Listen here. It might also help if adults and kids reevaluate success measures. Dr. Murthy shared that he felt relegated to one spectrum of success, academics, which, along with being shy and introverted, led him to feel lonely and alienated. Academics may be important but so are peers and relationships. “When we look at both life experience and also actually science and data, we realize that relationships are really important to our health and well-being. They impact our mental health. They impact our physical health,” Dr. Murthy said, “So throughout our lifespan, we need to have healthy relationships. And that comes from spending time with people and making people a priority. And those are some of the things that I wish I had known or focused on more when I was young.”

Mindful usage of social media

Social media can be a powerful tool but can also be addictive and detrimental to mental health. Dr. Murthy mentions how while traveling across the country, he met countless young people who say that social media makes them feel bad about themselves but they still can’t get off it. This can have ill effects on sleep, academics, and both physical and mental health. What can help, he said, is “to create tech-free zones” where you put your phone away while engaging with friends or charge it in another room at night. He also encourages teenagers to make a pact with a friend to help create healthy phone habits. 

Importance of reaching out to people

Dr. Murthy mentioned that a definite way to improve mental health is to remain connected, whether by picking up a phone call from family or a friend or showing up at important events in someone’s life. The important thing is having an inner circle of a few but reliable relationships you can lean on. “We are like magnets for human connection,” Dr. Murthy said. “If we give ourselves a little bit of connection, it can go a long way toward helping us feel better, mentally as well as physically.” 

Listen to On Our Minds wherever you find your podcasts, or click here.