AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 2016, when Dr. Vivek Murthy was the U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama Administration, he spoke with students at the University of Texas about mental health. Students told him that even though they were on a campus with thousands of other people, they felt like nobody actually knew them. Dr. Murthy said this was one of the earliest conversations that helped him understand loneliness is a public health issue.
Seven years later Dr. Murthy is back on the Forty Acres, this time as the U.S. Surgeon General under the Biden Administration, and discussing the challenges of loneliness as part of his “We Are Made to Connect” tour. It’s part of the Biden Administration’s efforts to tackle the nation’s mental health crisis.
Dr. Murthy said one out of every two adults are struggling with loneliness. It is an issue greatly impacting college students across the nation that leads to a greater risk of depression and suicide.
Speaking with students and a star
The discussion about loneliness was held in the Texas Union Theatre on campus. When doors opened, students rushed to the front row in order to grab the best seat in the house. On stage with Dr. Murthy was actor and UT professor Matthew McConaughey.
Both Murthy and McConaughey shared their experiences of dealing with mental health and loneliness. One story McConaughey talked about was his time after high school when he lived in Australia with a strange family that proved to be a challenge for his mental health.
Dr. Murthy talked about the importance of staying connected with friends and family. He says during his first stint as the Surgeon General he placed his job above everything else and ended up losing touch with a lot of people. This time around, he says he is making more of an effort, which can be as easy as talking with loved ones on the phone.
The impact of social media
Social media has become a part of everyday life for many Americans, especially young adults. Dr. Murthy said although technology has made things more convenient, it has come with its own consequences.
“As time has gone on, we’ve become more isolated,” Dr. Murthy explained. “We don’t need to go out and get groceries anymore, we can order them to our house. We don’t have to go to the store anymore. We don’t have to see people anymore.”
At one point in the conversation, Dr. Murthy asked the students in the crowd to raise their hand if they felt they had a bad relationship with social media. Almost every hand in the crowd went up.
“The algorithm is designed to give you quantity. Check it. Is it giving you quality?” McConaughey said.
Dr. Murthy said moving forward there needs to be real safety standards placed on social media so technology can be safer for children. He also thinks people need to reemphasize their in-person connections.
“We have to now intentionally rebuild those interactions in our life. Whether that’s having friends over, going and seeking out friends when we travel or in town, spending more time with family and really importantly making sure that our kids see us doing that,” Dr. Murthy said.
Giving them the tools
Part of the discussion is to give students practical tools they can use to rebuild those connections. Dr. Murthy challenged students to engage in five acts of connection over the next five days by either expressing gratitude to somebody, extending support, or asking somebody in their life for help.