Hi, I’m Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States. It’s my honor to welcome you to the Research!America 2022 National Health Research Forum. I want to thank Research!America president and CEO, Mary Woolley, and Board chair Susan Dentzer for the invitation to speak with you. Most of all, I want to thank all of you for being here and for all the work that you have done as scientists, doctors, advocates, and leaders during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
I know that the last two years haven’t been easy for this community. COVID was the most urgent public health threat we faced in generations. It touched every aspect of our lives, professionally and personally. And it sucked up all the oxygen in the room, taking resources and attention away from other critical public health crises that our country faced long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. But the scientific community is unquestionably emerging from this pandemic stronger and smarter from having gone through it. And our task now is to build on that knowledge we’ve gained and that progress that we’ve made, as we recover, rebuild, and prepare for what’s next.
I want to speak briefly about two issues that the well-being of our nation particularly demands we confront in the years to come; both of which preceded a pandemic, both of which were exacerbated by, and both of which will only compound public health threats to come if you leave them unaddressed. The first is familiar to all of you who have made medical and health research here work: it’s the extensive and dangerous spread of health misinformation.
On Health Misinformation
For decades, persistent rumors about HIV/AIDS have undermined efforts to reduce infection rates, and get people the treatment they need at home and abroad. During the Ebola epidemic, misinformation spread rapidly on social media, sowing confusion, escalating discourses. And outside the realm of infectious diseases, health misinformation has led people to turn down effective treatments for cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.
For too long, I fear we’ve underestimated the power and potential of health misinformation, dismissing it as a marginal problem relegated to the fringes. But over the last two years, we’ve seen clearly the speed and scale in which misinformation can burn through fertile ground. And we felt this cost in terms of lives lost and illness incurred. The spread of health misinformation has divided our families, friends, and communities. It’s led to threats against our public health front line workers and has undermined the proven benefits of treatments and vaccination. It’s leading an already exhausted health care workforce with an even heavier burden. And at its worst, it’s directly threatened our health and well-being. If we fail to effectively address health misinformation we will put more families, communities, and vulnerable people everywhere in danger.
That’s why last year, I released my surgeon general’s advisory on health misinformation, which highlights the urgency of this crisis and outlines the policy, institutional and individual changes that will take to address it — and it will take all of us. Your work is especially essential to help us learn more about how misinformation spreads, how we can stop it, and how we can help build digital health literacy in America. Clinicians, educators, journalists, and technology companies need insight and guidance to make sure Americans have the tools and the support and the information necessary to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy and safe. The work of building trust, understanding, and confidence in science and in each other is essential as we confront the public health crises ahead.
On Youth Mental Health
Which brings me to the second issue that will demand our best in the years to come. The profound mental health challenges affecting our young people. The pandemic has exacerbated the stresses young people already face and its pushed many to a breaking point. When I travel across the country and talk to grade school students, college kids, straight kids and LGBTQ+ kids, city kids, and rural kids, and kids alike, they all tell me how fundamentally the last two years have changed their experiences at home, at school, and in their community. Many of them don’t spend as much time with their friends as they used to. They’re finding it harder to concentrate. They’re struggling more with their grades. Their sleeping and eating patterns have changed. Indeed, since the pandemic began, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and negative emotions and behaviors have increased among young people.
Imagine a high school with 1,000 students. Now imagine about 450 of them saying they are persistently sad or hopeless, 200 saying they seriously considered suicide, and nearly 100 saying they’ve tried to end their own life over the last year. That is the state of youth mental health in America today. Now we have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to confront this crisis. That’s why last year I released my surgeon general’s advisory on protecting youth mental health, which calls our nation to attention and outlines the actions we must take to prevent and treat mental health challenges.
And to be sure, we’re already making progress happen. We’ve invested billions in American Rescue Plan funds to help students get the academic and mental health support they need. We’ve launched a 988 hotline to connect people in crisis to counselors. And we are amplifying the voices of young people in this movement, helping to change a culture around mental health from shame to understanding. But we still need to do more.
We need to ensure that every child has access to high quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care. We need to build a diverse mental health care workforce where the providers reflect the community they are serving. We need to integrate the mental health care system with the rest of the health care system, particularly primary care. We need to better understand and address the impact of technology and social media on our mental health. And we need to continue eradicating the stigma associated with mental health struggles.
Seize This Moment
Throughout our history, progress has always been born in the wake of tragedy. Now, we can seize this moment to lay the foundation for a healthier society if and only if we’re willing to step up.
Our mental health is at the heart of this foundation. So is ensuring we have access to accurate information as people across America make decisions about their health. I’m eager to partner with all of you: scientists, doctors, advocates, and leaders alike to make this progress possible. Your determination and sacrifice. The extraordinary work that you have put in over the last few years. They have helped save millions of lives. And they will help us address future public health risks.
I know this journey hasn’t been easy for any of you. And I want you to know how grateful I am for your skill and leadership during difficult times. And I hope that you take some well-deserved time to rest and reflect as well. Because you deserve it. And because I know that whatever is next for our nation, we will need your insights, your energy, and your guidance. Thank you again for having me today.