At Dartmouth, US surgeons general call for ‘stronger communities’ to address mental health crisis
Seven current and former U.S. surgeons general were at Dartmouth College on Thursday to talk about the nation's mental health crisis.
The country's current top doctor, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, was joined by predecessors going back to the first Bush administration.
Murthy said loneliness has become widespread, as communities have become less and less connected. He called it one of the country’s most pressing public health issues.
“People who struggle with loneliness and isolation, their risk of mental illness goes up – of depression, of anxiety, of suicide,” he said. “But the surprising thing is their risk of physical ailments go up, too, with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease by 29%, 50% increase in the risk of dementia among older people.”
Murthy – who earlier this year released a report on how to address that “epidemic of loneliness” – said rebuilding social connection must be a “national priority.”
He said more connected communities tend to do better economically, have lower rates of violence and show more resilience after shocks like natural disasters.
“It’s having an impact not only on our health as individuals, but the health of society,” he said.
The panel – moderated by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta – also touched on substance use, the unique challenges facing youth and veterans, and the health impacts of political division and mistrust, among other topics.
Dr. Antonia Coello Novello, who became the first woman and first Latina to serve as surgeon general in 1990, expressed concern about the number of health care workers experiencing burnout and poor mental health. Many don’t seek help because of stigma and fear of professional consequences, she said.
“I have the feeling that we, the ones who are supposed to take care of you, have, also, a problem,” she said. “And no one is taking care of us.”
Dr. Regina Benjamin, who served as the country’s top doctor from 2009 to 2013, said mental health care should be better integrated into primary care.
“If a patient comes in my office to get their blood pressure checked, and to get their cholesterol checked, checking their mental health or behavioral health is easy,” she said. “They’re comfortable with that, and it can be done there.”
But the solutions don’t lie entirely within the health care system, said Dr. Jerome Adams, who served as surgeon general between 2017 and 2021.
“We know that only about 20% of what determines your overall health, mentally and physically, happens in a hospital or a clinic,” he said. “The other 80% happens in communities that are connected, that are supportive of women and minorities, that have child care, that have good educational opportunities, that have a good paying job for folks.
“And I think we need to really focus on building those stronger communities,” he said.