Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy is the 19th Surgeon General of the United States and the first of Indian descent. He was appointed by President Obama in 2013 and confirmed in 2014. A graduate of Harvard College (’98), Vice Admiral Murthy has co-founded an HIV/AIDS educational organization, cared for thousands of patients, and trained hundreds of medical residents.
HPR: As the Surgeon General, you’re essentially the leading expert and adviser on public health and medicine in the United States. How are you approaching mental health in regard to people who have personally felt threatened or at risk as a result of the 2016 presidential election?
VAVM: Mental health and substance use disorders share a couple of things in common. One is that there is a significant overlap in people who have substance use disorders and people who have mental illnesses. But both illnesses suffer from an unfortunate stigma that for far too long has been associated with them.
I come from a cultural community where mental illness is seen as something to hide or to be ashamed of. In many Asian American communities, this is unfortunately how mental illness is viewed. But that’s not unique to the Asian American community. Many groups in our society look at mental illness that way. Unfortunately, we see as we have with substance use disorder that that kind of bias toward mental illness makes people worry that they’re going to be judged if they come forward and say that they need help, so many people don’t come forward until it’s far too late. It’s partly why we have such a long gap between when people initially present with the symptoms of mental illness and when they’re ultimately diagnosed. When it comes to mental illness, we have a lot of work to do, not just in ensuring that we have more treatment available and that treatment is integrated with traditional medical care but also when it comes to making it more acceptable to talk about mental illness and to ask for help.
With regard to the election, this is a time of great change for our country, and whenever we are in periods of great change, that presents real challenges because change is not easy. Change is really difficult for a lot of people, and uncertainty is also really difficult. In this time, it’s more important than ever for us to be really clear that as we move forward, we have to do so in a way that recognizes that people have concerns and anxieties and that lifts everyone up.
Historically, in our country, we know that we’ve had major inequities when it comes to health. We know that there are certain parts of our population that suffer from chronic illnesses at a much higher rate. These are often communities of color and the poor. We are in a process of now working to correct some of those historical inequities.
Inequities of any type are problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, the values on which our country is based is a value set that is about equity, the notion that every person, regardless of where they came from, what their gender is, or how much money they make, matters and that every life is valued. We have to make sure that’s reflected in our policies and our healthcare outcomes. That means that resolving and eliminating disparities in health is essential to ensuring that we are a country that’s living in a manner that is consistent with our highest values. Keeping those values in the foreground is what’s important to do during times of major change.
As people think about what they do in their day-to-day work and how they interact with their neighbors and community, this is a time when it’s especially important for us to reach out, to listen to people, to understand what’s on their mind, to provide a sounding board for people who are worried or have anxieties, and to recognize that ultimately our goal is to move forward together. We can only do so if everyone feels included and everyone feels that their voice and their life matter. The work that we do in our office is very much geared toward not only prevention but also health equity. It’s making sure that the benefits of treatment and prevention really accrue to all parts of our population.
HPR: As the first Indian American in this role, is there a specific message you hope to bring to that community, as well as the larger Asian American community and minority communities in general?
VAVM: I take my job seriously in all respects, but I also recognize that as the first Asian American Surgeon General, I have a lot to be grateful for in terms of what this country has afforded me. There are not that many countries in the world where your parents could come from very humble roots—my dad, for example, was from a small farming village in south India—and where you could be given the privilege to serve in this manner, where you’re responsible for looking out for the health of the entire nation.
The fact that I have been afforded this opportunity speaks to what’s extraordinary about America. It reaffirms to me the idea that we are in fact a nation of immigrants, and whether you came here a year ago, a generation ago, or five generations ago, we all are bound together by our love of country and a desire to contribute to making this country better. So I feel very grateful for that.
To me, part of that gratitude needs to be expressed in making opportunities like this available for more people. As I think about the conversations that I have, particularly with immigrant communities, kids who are from minority communities, and kids who are growing up in disadvantaged situations—poverty in particular—I try to focus on making sure that I am doing everything I can to connect them to opportunities to serve and that they don’t forget that even though they may be growing up in tough circumstances, this is a country where they can succeed. Clearly, we have to do more to make sure that we have more ladders of opportunity for everybody in this country. It’s certainly harder for some people than it is for others to access good education and good healthcare. I see it as the responsibility of those of us who have been given opportunities to serve to ensure that others have the chance to do so as well, that they have ladders of opportunity that we are building for them, and that they can ascend and thereby serve our entire country.
I don’t take it for granted. Something usually happens in the office or when we’re out on the road each and every day that reminds me of what a privilege it is to be able to be in this position and to contribute to our country in all manners of speaking. It’s made me really grateful to my parents for making that decision that they made years ago to come to the United States. They could have stayed in India and decided that it was just too hard to make the journey over here. But they didn’t. They decided that even though it was really hard, it was worth coming over because their children, my sister and I, could have a better life here—a life where we were judged not by the color of our skin or how funny-sounding our name was but by our ability and willingness to work hard and by the caliber of our ideas. Even though we are not a country that is free of bias and free of prejudice, we are a country that affords people extraordinary opportunities. I am very grateful to have benefited from that.
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