Extroverts wake up every morning with an empty basket, and everyone they talk to puts an apple in their basket until it’s full. Introverts wake up every morning with a basket full of apples, and everyone they talk to takes an apple, until their basket is empty and they need to refill.
It’s a metaphor that US surgeon general Vivek Murthy used with students during a lecture at Southern Connecticut State University on Thursday night about loneliness, mental health and the need for connection.
Students from Yale University, University of New Haven, Southern Connecticut State University and Gateway Community College gathered at the Student Center for the event. Murthy has traveled across the country giving similar presentations to students and young people to raise awareness of the mental health crisis and to hear about young people’s experiences with mental health.
“Every story we hear, every conversation we have, it all adds up to the arsenal – if you will, the arsenal, I think, of evidence – that we use… to help tell the story. larger story of what is happening in our country,” Murthy told reporters after the event.
In December 2021, Murthy released an advisory report warning of “alarming increases” in the number of young people struggling with mental health issues like persistent sadness and hopelessness. The advisory noted that between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among young people aged 10 to 24 increased by 57% and that young people’s emergency room visits for depression and anxiety increased by 28%.
Murthy, who described social connection as being as necessary to human beings “as food and water”, said it was also essential to the functioning of a society.
“When people feel connected to each other…they’re more creative, they’re more productive. They tend to stay at work longer when they feel connected to their colleagues,” he said. “And we also know that when society faces great challenges, as we are right now, whether it’s climate change, violence or inequality, it forces us to come together as countries to listen to each other and work together to advance common solutions.. But we cannot do this if we are separated and isolated.
Murthy began with an interactive exercise, asking students to answer questions: Was it easy or hard to make friends on campus? Did they want more social connection or were they satisfied? — by moving to one side or the other of the room.
Students described some of the challenges they faced when trying to connect with their peers – being a commuter student and not being able to stay for club meetings, trying to adjust as an international student to a new crop – not to mention the social anxiety of garden variety.
“Since moving to campus, my social anxiety has skyrocketed,” said Bianca, a student at the University of New Haven. “I joined five clubs hoping to talk to people. I tried to talk to people on my floor, but at the same time I feel like I’m limiting myself…I want to try, but there’s something stopping me and I’m trying to push through , but I can’t. I do not know how.
To these more traditional challenges has been added isolation due to the pandemic, forcing people to rely more on technology and weakening in-person communication skills.
“I am a senior. This is my senior year,” said Mary Lippa, a senior at the University of New Haven. “A lot of us have been online for two years and we don’t know how to connect anymore.”
“Everyone is too attached to their phone and they’re just too attached to Facebook,” said Tristan Johnson, a student at Gateway Community College. “When I was a kid, there was no Facebook. So when I was in a building, you had to communicate with the people around you. Now everyone can leaf through their phone, nobody pays attention to what’s going on around him. It’s kind of sad.”
After asking students whether they were more comfortable in large crowds or in smaller, intimate environments – and noting that the vast majority leaned towards the intimate – Murthy pointed out that events designed to accommodate students from freshman year in college – mixers, movie nights, ice cream socials, etc. – are often large gatherings rather than the small gatherings that students said they preferred.
He said he remembered it from his own college days.
“I was an introvert. I still am. It wasn’t so comfortable going to all those things,” he said. “But we live in a bit of an extroverted world, right? Big events are sort of the norm, so it’s interesting that so many of you say you prefer being people in intimate settings.
Murthy also said students need to know where to go for mental health help. When he asked the students if they knew where to go for mental health support on campus, about a third of the students in the room raised their hands. He talked about the 988 hotline, which people can call if they want to speak to a mental health provider.
The conversation was followed by a panel discussion in which four students representing each of the universities spoke about building college connections and what needed to be changed. Students said they wanted to see universities help students develop a sense of cultural identity and more opportunities for students to have conversations with college administration, as well as facilitate small gatherings. groups.
Lippa, who participated in the panel, said it was essential to develop a community where students openly shared their struggles.
“When [the student leaders] opened up to me and told me about the difficulties they were facing – about not knowing if they were going to go home walking the streets of New Haven and West Haven after dark night because they had to go grocery shopping… I found I really connected with them and understood the struggle,” she said. “Establishing a community where you can talk about your anxiety and stress and all the issues you’re facing without judgment – that’s the most important thing.”
“A Window of Opportunity”
In his advisory report, Murthy included recommendations on how different sectors of society could improve access to mental health care for children, including strengthening insurance coverage for mental health services, providing evidence-based social-emotional learning in schools and school-based mental health programs, expanding the mental health workforce and providing better support for children in the juvenile justice system and the foster care system.
Asked about progress in the nine months since the notice was issued, Murthy said he had worked with lawmakers to pass bills. He said he had never before seen the level of public awareness of mental health needs or the agreement between politicians of both parties, the executive branch and school and health professionals on the that something had to be done to fix the problem.
“This alignment is a window of opportunity, but windows don’t stay open forever,” he said. “And that’s why I feel a great sense of urgency to make sure we’re doing everything we can to move policies forward, to change institutional practices, and ultimately to change the culture of how we think. to mental health.”
Murthy told reporters after the event that he believed technology was a critical part of ensuring people had access to healthcare given the shortage of mental healthcare providers. He said telemedicine can play a vital role in enabling people in rural or remote areas to access mental health services.
“I remember visiting a small fishing town in Alaska when I was surgeon general in 2016,” Murthy said.
“And in this little fishing village of 150 people, they actually had a screen in the wall, where people could come in and sit in front of that screen and access counseling services from providers in the lower 48. And I wish we had that in every little town, in every community across America.
Murthy added that there is another element to addressing the mental health crisis that goes beyond investing in the workforce or changing policy. It has to do, he said, with bringing together a country that has been divided and disconnected – and it is something everyone can participate in.
“All the stories I’ve heard across the country tell us that something is wrong right now. And what is needed is a return to that deeper connection, that sense of community, which is deeply healing,” he said. “Through your ability to connect deeply with another human being, to pay attention to someone else, to listen to them, to give them the benefit of the doubt in a conversation – your ability to help someone to feel seen, heard and understood, to know that they matter – this is your ability to heal. This is a power you can wield right now. And we need you too, because this is the only way to improve things.