U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has pledged to work toward “culture change” to lessen the stigma that often surrounds mental illness.

Speaking at the opening session of Mental Health America’s annual conference last week just outside of Washington, D.C., Murthy said he plans to make mental health a priority during his tenure. Murthy, a physician, researcher and Harvard Medical School instructor, was sworn in for a four-year term as surgeon general in December.

People should be just as comfortable telling their boss they need time off for a therapy appointment to tend to their mental health as they are saying they are going to see the doctor for an injured ankle, Murthy said.

“[Mental health] is an area where we have a lot of progress to make,” Murthy said. “It will take a lot of effort, [but] I am looking forward to making progress together.”

Mental Health America President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo (far left) looks on as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy takes questions from the audience at the opening session of MHA's annual conference last week.
Mental Health America CEO Paul Gionfriddo (far left) looks on as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy takes questions from the audience at the opening session of MHA’s annual conference last week.

Mental Health America (MHA) is a nonprofit that provides mental health advocacy, education and support services through a network of more than 200 affiliates in 41 states. Last week, hundreds of health professionals, mental health advocates, researchers, educators, and business and government leaders attended the organization’s annual conference in Alexandria, Virginia.

Murthy’s focus on mental health has a personal connection. As a young man, Murthy happened to answer the phone call that brought his family the unhappy news that his uncle had taken his own life. Murthy later came to learn that his uncle suffered from untreated and undiagnosed depression.

“Piecing together the puzzle came too late for my uncle,” Murthy said. “There is no place for stigma when it comes to mental illness. … We need to make it more acceptable for [those who are mentally ill] to get the help they need.”

When it comes to mental illness, early intervention is key, he said. This can be improved, Murthy said, if medical professionals across the board, from oncologists to cardiologists, are better trained to identify the signs of mental illness and connect patients with appropriate care and support.

“Integration of mental health services and traditional medical care is definitely an area where we need to make progress,” he said. “Health care professionals need to be fully trained in mental health. … We need health care professionals who can recognize mental health needs, even if it’s not their traditional field.”

Murthy has been all over the country in his first six months as “America’s doctor.” He said his travels have shown him that although the nation’s mental health needs are substantial, there are also effective and innovative programs growing around throughout the United States.

Fighting stigma and improving mental health care “is something I believe we can do together. It will require resolve and commitment,” he said. “I’m confident we can create a better America for those with mental illness.”




S G MurthyRelated reading

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote about his commitment to mental health in a recent post, titled “Raise Your Voice,” on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) blog: 1.usa.gov/1dYqEVN










Mental Health America’s “B4Stage4” campaign aims to change the way Americans think about mental health. The Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit is working to remove stigma and improve access to care through advocacy – including at its annual conference held last week – and spreading awareness through social media and other mediums.

Care begins with prevention and early intervention — helping people before they reach crisis, or “stage 4,” explains MHA President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo.

“Mental health is more than an absence of ‘danger to self or others,’” he said at the MHA Conference opening session.

“We can build a different trajectory in the lives of people like Tim,” Gionfriddo said, referring to his son, who suffers from schizophrenia. “We need to change the message, change the reality, change the way the general public thinks about mental illness.”


Find out more about B4Stage4, download shareable infographics and fact sheets, and join in the social media campaign at mentalhealthamerica.net/b4stage4.






Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


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