Young People Lead the Change in Tackling Mental Health Issues

The surgeon general says youth mental wellness is a top priority, but what does that look like? We asked him. Our interview with Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.

Young People Lead the Change in Tackling Mental Health Issues (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Just over six months ago, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on youth mental health — addressing several concerning statistics that suggest action should be taken as soon as possible. And recently, the surgeon general participated in a summit in Los Angeles to brainstorm possible solutions in conversation with youth leaders and advocacy organizations.

As a young woman of color, it has been difficult to access mental health care that takes my identity and cultural experiences into account. With this in mind, I spoke to Dr. Murthy during the summit about the U.S. government’s approach to culturally competent mental health services and the power of vulnerability. And fellow youth reporters from Kern Sol News and Boyle Heights Beat joined me in discussing more about what’s at stake for young people’s well-being in this country.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ivelisse Diaz: There is an overall lack of Black, Indigenous and people of color working as mental health professionals. What is the U.S. government doing to address this disparity? 

Dr. Vivek Murthy: We’re looking to make sure that we are supporting people with loan repayment programs and other such measures to make sure that they can actually get training. We have a National Health Services scholarship, for example, where we look at or invest in even more funds to make sure those kinds of scholarship programs are available to more people.

What we also need to do more of is to work with training institutions themselves, right? To make sure that they are recruiting in communities that are traditionally underrepresented. And to have clinicians of color go out and participate in that recruitment process — makes a big difference. When you see somebody like you practicing as a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a counselor [it] sends you the message, “Hey, maybe somebody like me could do this as well.”

Boyle Heights Beat: How should young people with parents who are against their child receiving mental health services, navigate their needs and the relationships with the parents?

Dr. Murthy: So this is tough. And my parents immigrated to the United States as well, and came from a culture that didn’t necessarily understand what mental health was. And there’s a lot of stereotypes and stigma around mental health. So I know what this feels like, very much.

Look, it’s not always easy to do. One thing, just to remember is that in many cases, our immigrant parents are evolving, and growing in terms of their understanding about mental health, and many of them came from communities where mental health was not well understood. But what is important is that if you do need help, that you ask for help. That you talk to others, in some cases, that may not be parents.  Maybe it’s a counselor at school, maybe it’s a teacher at school, maybe it’s a friend. But it’s important that we talk to others.

So I think we have to approach our caring parents with some forgiveness here, bringing them in kindness, recognizing that they themselves are evolving. But we can’t let that hold us back in terms of getting the support that we need, because everyone’s mental health is important. And everyone is going to struggle at some point in their life. And this is really important for us to understand this is mental health exists on a spectrum, you know, and some days, we’re in a great place, some days, we may not be and some people may be in a place where they’re experiencing severe mental illness, you know, so we all exist on a spectrum. But we just got to understand that the struggle with your mental health is the story of being human. It’s not the story of being broken.

ID: How can the U.S. government acknowledge and assist the needs of those in marginalized communities that have less access to mental health care — what can we say to young people who really need access and are looking for ways to get in touch with it? 

Dr. Murthy: You know, one of the the numbers that sticks in my mind that is really disturbing is the fact that on average it takes 11 years from when, uh, a young person has symptoms to when they can actually get treatment. It’s 11 years. It’s a long time. It’s an unacceptably long time … And so one of the commitments we have to make as a country is to make a commitment that every child who needs help should be able to get help and get some in a timely manner … That means we have to use technology better, especially telemedicine, to make remote care more accessible. We’ve got to knock down some of these insurance barriers — both insurance coverage and the lack of networks within insurance, which prevent people from actually getting care. It should be much, much easier to get care.

And the other piece is around school counselors. We know that school counselors play a vital role in often detecting challenges early that young people may be experiencing. But we don’t have enough school counselors in our schools.

Kern Sol News: How is the mental health of youth coming out of the pandemic being prioritized?

Dr. Murthy: As you know, because of the pandemic, we’ve seen anxiety and depression rates rise. We saw suicide rates skyrocket before the pandemic. And a lot of young people are really struggling right now. That’s one of the reasons why I issued a surgeon general’s advisory in December on youth mental health because I wanted to call our entire country to attention and action to address this crisis.

And we laid out concrete actions that various sectors could take. And we’re not stopping there. One of the reasons that we’re here is because as communities respond to that advisory and start taking action, we want to do everything we can to support them … We had, thankfully, many young people who came to raise their hand and say, look, I want to be a part of this broader movement that we’re building to address youth mental health concerns. So we’re going to keep doing this work around the country.

ID: How has this rising openness impacted your ability to have open and honest conversations about your mental health?

Dr. Murthy: First of all, I think the openness and courage that young people today have to talk about their mental health is really inspiring … It’s not only helping accelerate a broader conversation on mental health, it’s helping older generations recognize it’s okay to talk about their own struggles with mental health. This is an example of how young people can lead in not only changing policy and practice, but changing culture and perception.

I spent my younger years weighed down by a lot of stigma [around mental health] … It was only when I got to medical school and dropped into a class called The Healers Art at UCSF that I realized there may be spaces for us to talk about mental health.

So I ended up creating a course like that for healers at my medical school. And now this course exists in many medical schools around the country. In whatever sphere I work in — whether it’s a group of students that I’m training in the future, or another organization I’m working with — I want to make sure people feel comfortable talking about their mental health and wellbeing.

In addition to YR Media’s coverage, you can find extended versions of Dr. Murthy’s interview with JaNell Gore at South Kern Sol here:

And with Carmen González at Boyle Heights Beat here:

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