Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaing at Youth Mental Health Summit June 14-15 in downtown Los Angeles

BHB youth reporter Carmen González, a CSULB student, interviewed Dr. Vivek Murthy after his participation Tuesday at the Youth Mental Health Summit. The interview with the U.S. Surgeon General has been edited for space and clarity.

Boyle Heights Beat:  In your advisory [on the current crisis], you suggest investing in healthy relationships as a way for youth to take action in mental health struggles. How can youth support each other if a majority of them are facing similar challenges?

Dr. Vivek Murthy: Well, that’s a really important question. You know, it turns out that we all need support from one another. It’s very difficult to get through life on your own even in much less difficult times, and a lot of people are facing really tough times right now.

But the interesting thing is, when we actually help other people, it helps us to measure and reminds us of the power that we have. It reminds us that we have love and kindness and generosity to others. And so there’s a very interesting and consistent phenomenon where when people reach out to help others,  they themselves are healed in the process. And so one of the things that we always recommend, to people who are struggling with loneliness or with mental health challenges, is to find opportunities to serve others. 

BHB:  My own experience is that many Latinx parents, many of them immigrants, tend to be against mental health therapy. How should young people with parents who are against their child receiving mental health services, navigate their needs and the relationships with the parents?

VM: Well, so this is tough. And look, I, 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.

BHB: With the current political climate ­–lot of anti LGBTQ plus legislation passed in different states in the country, gun violence and conversations about gun control, and the second March for our lives– what advice do you have for student advocates, to take care of themselves when they aren’t seeing enough being done by politicians and the government to create change.

VM: Well, let me just say,  I think some of my greatest sources of hope are youth advocates. And because I think major change in society has always happened when young people have stood up and said, “Enough is enough,” you know, we are going to change how things are operating in our society. But it’s not easy, though. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

It takes persistence, and stamina. And this is why it’s so important for kids to take care of themselves in this process. That means to take breaks when you need it. It means to not be constantly glued to the news, which is hard in this day and age, but sometimes you got to take a break from the news. And it’s also important to recognize that, advocacy is something that requires all of us to be working together.  One single person may not be able to change policy alone. But together, we can do this.

“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.”

Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL

I’ll just say that I completely understand how some youth advocates and just youth more broadly may feel pessimistic about the future. And they may feel angry and upset about the lack of change that we’ve seen, not only when it comes to addressing gun violence, but also when it comes to addressing other issues like climate change, or inequality in society. I understand that frustration. But this is actually why it’s so important in a democracy for people to speak up and to make sure their voices are heard, whether it’s at the ballot box, whether it’s, you know, in the public square, whether it’s going in meeting with your elected leaders to make sure they understand what your needs are, that those voices matter.

And I can finally just say, as somebody who serves in government, not in an elected position but as Surgeon General, that when people speak up, we take notice.  I remember so many of the stories of young people who have had the courage to stand up and share their story with me. It’s shaped how I think and  it’s literally shaped our agenda.  the reason that I have worked as Surgeon General on the issue of loneliness and an isolation is because I heard from so many people across the country, especially young people, that they were struggling with loneliness and isolation. So that wasn’t on my agenda before, but it became an important priority.

BHB: In your advisory, you list off communities that are at higher risk during the pandemic to face mental health challenges. And I couldn’t help but notice, that there wasn’t anything mentioned about the undocumented. Why weren’t they mentioned? And how should undocumented youth navigate mental health accessing mental health in the United States?

VM: That’s a great question. So one of the things that I’ve said a number of times publicly  is that immigrants, whether they’re documented or undocumented, face unique challenges. I think, especially for those who are undocumented, we know that access to basic services to health care, and other precautions may be more challenging. That means that they are at greater risk. At the end of the day when it comes to the issues like COVID and health in general, the virus doesn’t care about your documentation status. It doesn’t care whether you immigrated here a year ago, or 10 generations ago. We’ve got to keep everybody safe. And that’s one of the reasons why, in the broader COVID effort, the administration worked really hard to make sure that vaccines were available to everyone regardless of your status, and they wanted people to know, and they were also available for you charge. So what we have to do is recognize that every life matters in our country. It doesn’t matter  how you got here. We’ve got to take care of people’s health and their wellbeing. If we do that, we have a society that thrives.

Carmen González is a former Boyle Heights Beat reporter, a 2019 graduate of Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School and a student at Cal State Long Beach. González is a fellow with the CalMatters...

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