In Columbus, surgeon general calls youth mental health the nation's 'defining challenge'

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As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, one of the nation's top doctors is warning Ohioans to prepare for a crisis exacerbated by years of social distancing and shuttered schools — youth mental health.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy visited Columbus on Tuesday to meet with leaders and hear from young people at local colleges and hospitals about mental health. In an interview with The Dispatch, he called youth mental health "the defining challenge of our country."

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, talks with Dispatch reporters Tuesday about youth mental health.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, talks with Dispatch reporters Tuesday about youth mental health.

"How do we answer the question: Are we taking care of our kids?" said Murthy, a doctor and vice admiral who was the first surgeon general of Indian descent when he first served as U.S. surgeon general under President Obama.

"... Right now, our kids are telling us very clearly that they are struggling and it's up to us to collectively respond."

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Around 44% of high school students have reported feeling persistently sad and hopeless and on average it takes about 11 years for a child struggling with his or her mental health to obtain treatment, Murthy said.

It's critically important, Murthy said, for those numbers to decline.

However, he said the rise in youth mental health struggles isn't caused by any one thing and so society needs multiple approaches to help children cope.

What Murthy did in Columbus

Murthy praised local work being done to address the issue, such as the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion at Nationwide Children's Hospital. The facility opened in 2020 and planned to start with 22 inpatient beds and eventually ramp up to 48.

Murthy said he visited Nationwide Children's on Tuesday and was happy to hear that the hospital is working behavioral health care into primary care treatment as well.

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Before Murthy stopped by The Dispatch, he also met with students and faculty at Otterbein University in Westerville. Afterward, he planned to discuss mental health with student athletes at Ohio State University.

"Some of the loneliest people I've met are students on college campuses, who say: 'I'm surrounded by people all the time, but I feel like nobody really knows me. I feel like I'm invisible,'" Murthy said.

For the last several years, Murthy has publicly talked about loneliness and how it plays an important role in other health and social problems. He has even published a book on the subject, "Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World."

Kids and mental health care: Where things stand in U.S.

Across the U.S., there has been a shortage of child psychiatrists for decades.

There are 16 mental health care facilities for children in Ohio, four of which are located in Greater Columbus, according to data from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that for every 100,000 Ohio children, there are just 11 psychiatrists, which matches the national median. The association labels Ohio as one of 41 states with a “severe shortage.”

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It's no secret that there's been an exodus of health care workers since the start of the pandemic that Murthy admitted has likely worsened the shortage.

While Ohio and the country as a whole "absolutely need more medical providers," Murthy said more creative solutions are needed.

Remedying the mental health care shortage

Murthy said one fix could include expanding the definition of who is considered a mental health care provider.

The workforce, he said, shouldn't be limited to psychiatrists and psychologists. It needs to expand to include more school counselors, clinical social workers and everyday community members who can be trained to administer "mental health first aid."

The other solution is virtual mental health care, which Murthy said has been expanding.

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The surgeon general recalled visiting in 2016 a remote fishing village in Alaska, where he stopped by a small clinic where there was a video screen hanging on the wall. Murthy asked what the screen was for and workers told him that patients could use it to talk with mental health professionals in other parts of the U.S.

"There is no reason we should not be able to do that everywhere in America," he said.

Mental health care: Going forward

While the pandemic may have exacerbated the youth mental health crisis, Murthy said it may have also hastened some of the solutions in the works.

In fact, the expansion of telemedicine for mental health has expedited virtual health care across the country. Now, Murthy said states and the nation as a whole need to make permanent the changes that allowed doctors to practice remotely.

Doing so will expand access to care for parts of the country where there remain too few psychiatrists and psychologists, he said.

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The isolation experienced by many during the COVID pandemic also seems to have opened people's minds to what others are going through. That represents a cultural shift that Murthy said needs to continue in the decades to come.

"A lot of this has been pushed forward by the pandemic, which for many people, has just pulled back the curtain on mental health as an issue..." he said. "We're all struggling in some way, and we all have struggled over the years and there's nothing to be ashamed of. So I want us to use this window of opportunity to do right by our children."

mfilby@dispatch.com

@MaxFilby

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: In Columbus, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urges mental health care