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On mental illness, obesity and the opioid epidemic with the U.S. Surgeon General

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Sam Gross

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy during a one-on-one interview with the Daily Wildcat. Murthy gave the commencement address at the UA’s 152nd annual commencement ceremony in Arizona Stadium on Friday, May 13. 

A man wearing a clean-cut and official looking uniform stood before over 6,000 graduates, their families and guests at the 152nd annual UA commencement ceremony to give a few words of advice for how to begin their lives post-academia. 

The man, who jokingly referred to his uniforms as often being mistaken for that of an airline pilot’s, was Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States. 

Murthy has spent a majority of his life advocating for the betterment of our nation’s public health. Mental and physical health was a theme that rang through his commencement address.

Prior to being named Surgeon General in late 2014, he co-founded Doctors for America, a national movement consisting of thousands of physicians and medical students working to improve access to affordable health care. While he was a freshman at Harvard University, he started VISIONS worldwide, a non-profit organization working to address prevention of AIDS in India.

The Daily Wildcat sat down with Murthy before he walked the commencement stage to talk about three rampant health issues facing many young adults today — mental illness, obesity and opioid addiction.

Mental Illness

May is nationally recognized as mental health awareness month in effort to raise awareness of the devastating effects of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression or anorexia, among others.

Due to balancing academics, extracurricular activities and social outings, it should come as no surprise that researchers have described an epidemic of mental illness among college students.



study conducted by the National Alliance for Mental Illness found that one in four college students have suicidal thoughts, with 50 percent of all students rating their mental health as “below average.” Suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among student demographics, according to the World Health Organization.

Only 7 percent of the parents of students surveyed reported that their child was suffering with a mental illness, indicating a vast majority of students may not be seeking help.

“When I first became surgeon general, I began by listening to people’s concerns in communities over America,” Murthy said. “One of the biggest concerns that I found people had were over mental illness.

He said that two of the biggest signs that a student may be suffering from mental illness are isolation and sleep disturbance.

Murthy went on to say that there are things schools can to to combat the epidemic of mental illness in their student bodies.

“One of the most important things schools can do is to start a conversation about mental health to emphasize that our mental health is as important as our physical health,” he said. “Another example where schools can help students is to give students access to the support and resources they offer to fight mental illness.”

Counseling and Psych Services at the UA offers help and assistance to students struggling to deal with personal problems.

Murthy said he believes that one of the ways schools can begin to take action on the quality of student’s mental health is to put a greater emphasis on getting quality sleep. With students facing frequent deadlines and a myriad of exams, this is not an easy task.

“[Getting quality sleep] is a challenge for all of us,” he said. “It turns out, however, that sleep has a powerful impact on our health, including our mental health”

study published in The Journal of Neuroscience actually found that sleep deprivation in humans induced severe issues with attention deficits, similarly to what is seen in patients with schizophrenia.

Murthy said it’s important to form social connections with those around you, as “having a support system is essential at all stages of life.”

Obesity

The Center for Disease Control stated in 2015 that obesity rates in the United States reached an all-time high with roughly 35 percent of the adult population listed as obese.

West Virginia, however, recorded the highest rate — 35.7 percent of adults are listed as being obese, according to the CDC data on national obesity.



Murthy believes that one of the reasons that obesity rates are still climbing despite the increased awareness is because of the limitations of policy reform. He stressed the need for changing the people’s perspectives on health and gave an example of the limitations of strictly focusing on working to change policy.

“It’s not enough for me come to you with a plate of healthy food choices. You have to actually want to eat them,” Murthy said. “The question then becomes what’s influencing people’s eating decisions”.

One area where people could work to combat the rising obesity rates deals with the environment that people are in, according to Murthy. For example, one of the reasons that obesity rates could be higher in poor regions is due to safety concerns for kids looking to play outside.

He stated that it’s crucial that we work to create an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle. One of his calls to action as Surgeon General is the Step It Up! campaign, where Murthy has stressed the importance of physical activity in the form of walking. 

This could be done in the form of walking to school or even holding business meetings while walking.

In this initiative Murthy calls for citizens to get involved with community planning in order to make their communities more walkable, thus promoting healthier lifestyles.

Another important aspect of obesity rates in the U.S. is the disparity between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, higher income women are less likely to be obese than low-income women.

Among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American men, those with higher incomes are more likely to be obese than those with low income, according to the CDC data.

In order to bridge the gap among obesity rates in different socioeconomic groups, Murthy stated that we first need to recognize that poverty is one of the most powerful factors that influence obesity. He also stressed the need for considering the health effects of public policy as creating environments such as an unsafe neighborhood can ultimately effect one’s health.

“We have to realize that there is a health consequence to every policy,” Murthy said. “If we realize that, we can then work together to create policies for the betterment of our health”.

Opioid Addiction

One of the biggest health crisis that our nation is facing today is the overconsumption of opioid medication, an extremely powerful, commonly prescribed painkiller. 

Opioid abuse currently sends 1000 people to emergency departments every day and claims the lives of approximately 78 people per day, according to the CDC.

President Barack Obama, in collaboration with Dr. Murthy and in recognition of the severity of the issue, announced a $1.1 billion initiative to fight the opioid epidemic a few months ago.

While Murthy acknowledged that there are certainly patients who will need to use opioid medication — such as patients recovering from surgery — he believes that we should be putting our efforts in to finding alternative methods of pain relief for those suffering from chronic pain.

“There are other medications that patients suffering from pain can take for relief that aren’t opioid based,” Murthy said. “However, there are also other, non-medication based treatments that we should further fund.”

He said that two alternative treatments that should be further researched are mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Scientists found in a study published this year that both mindfulness meditation and CBT to be extremely effective in patients suffering from chronic, lower back pain.


For more on Dr. Murthy and his goals as Surgeon General, click here. Follow the Daily Wildcat on Twitter.


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