Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and all six of his living predecessors will join President Sian Leah Beilock next month for a panel discussion seeking solutions to the national mental health crisis.
The moderated conversation, The Current and Former U.S. Surgeons General Discuss the Future of Mental Health and Wellness, will begin at 1 p.m. on Sept. 28 in Leede Arena and will be free and open to the public. The event will also be livestreamed and available to audiences outside Dartmouth.
“Nationwide, mental health is an urgent challenge that health care professionals, educators, and leaders at every level must address head on,” says President Beilock, who has made the goal of improving the mental health and wellness of the community a priority for her administration.
“As institutional leaders, researchers, doctors, and thinkers, we in higher education have an imperative to go beyond bestowing knowledge—we have a responsibility to identify and address root causes of the crisis while also providing young people with the tools they need to feel healthy and connected.”
Talking about the mental health crisis with the surgeons general, who have played critical roles in addressing major health issues such as smoking, AIDS, and opioids, is intended to help bring a more national focus to the problem.
Murthy issued a 53-page advisory on youth mental health (PDF) in 2021, saying, “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”
Dartmouth is home to the C. Everett Koop Institute, named for the late surgeon general who graduated from Dartmouth in 1937 and returned in 1992 as the Elizabeth DeCamp McInery Professor of Surgery at the Geisel School of Medicine.
Beilock, a pioneering cognitive scientist, specializes in the psychological factors that affect performance. She took office as Dartmouth’s 19th president in June and will be formally inaugurated on Sept. 22, making the meeting of surgeons general one of the first major events of her tenure.
The seriousness of student mental health cannot be overstated, Beilock says. She cites data from the most recent Healthy Minds Study (PDF), a survey of more than 76,000 college students around the country, which found that 41% reported symptoms of depression, 36% experienced anxiety, and 14% reported experiencing suicidal thoughts in the past year.
“Dartmouth, sadly, has not been immune to the worst consequences of the mental health crisis. Our community has suffered devastating loss to suicide, and that is why we need to be having these hard conversations,” Beilock says. “This discussion is intended to galvanize the medical, academic, and policy establishment to take a hard look at what is happening in our communities and help us advocate for—and implement—meaningful interventions that can save lives.”
Geisel Dean Duane Compton says it is critical for everyone to feel that they are part of a caring community devoted to their academic and professional success.
“All facets of our community must work together to deepen the value and commitment given to mental health,” Compton says. “Dartmouth can be a leader in elevating this conversation to a national stage.”
Under Beilock’s leadership, Dartmouth is making a substantial commitment to improving mental health and well-being support across campus, for students, faculty, and staff.
The Dartmouth community has provided $8 million to support mental health initiatives, including support from alumni, and the Beilock administration will continue marshaling funding for new initiatives, including any that may emerge from the conversation with the surgeons general.
Dartmouth plans to roll out a strategic plan this fall that will address the mental health of all students and include a new policy for Time Away for Medical Reasons, which has been identified as an area in need of improvement for many students.
The counseling center continues to staff up and has more than doubled its clinical staff in the past three years, while all students now have access to teletherapy services through the mental health provider Uwill, which offers students free 24/7 teletherapy from any location. Students have availed themselves of the service, with thousands of counseling sessions already having taken place.
At Geisel, nearly $6 million has been committed to a comprehensive mental health and wellness program for medical students known as Healthy Students, Healthy Physicians, which was launched in 2019.
The idea for gathering past and present surgeons general at Dartmouth to discuss mental health care originated with Lisa McBride, associate dean for diversity, equity, and belonging at Geisel.
According to McBride, the Sept. 28 meeting will be only the second time in history that all living surgeons general have come together for a common purpose. The first, she says, was in 1998, when Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health hosted past and present officeholders on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Dean McBride played an essential role in bringing this event to Dartmouth, and we are grateful for her efforts,” Compton says.
The surgeons general who will be in attendance in September have collectively served in every presidential administration from George H.W. Bush to Joe Biden. They are:
- Murthy, a doctor of internal medicine and the first surgeon general of Indian descent, was first appointed to the role by President Barack Obama in 2014. He was reappointed in 2021 by President Joe Biden. He serves as a key adviser to President Biden’s COVID-19 pandemic response operation and is working across government to address critical public health issues, including the ongoing youth mental health crisis.
- Jerome Adams, an anesthesiologist, was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017. He is a presidential fellow at Purdue University, where he is executive director of Health Equity Initiatives and a distinguished professor of the practice.
- Regina Benjamin, a specialist in family medicine, was appointed by President Obama in 2009. She is the founder and CEO of BayouClinic, a rural family practice in Bayou La Batre, Ala.
- Richard Carmona, a surgeon who has also worked as a paramedic and registered nurse, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006. He is a distinguished professor of public health, professor of surgery, and clinical professor of pharmacy practice-science at the University of Arizona.
- David Satcher, a specialist in preventative medicine, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998. He is founding director and senior adviser of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, where he holds a faculty appointment in community health and preventative medicine.
- Joycelyn Elders, a pediatrician and public health administrator, was appointed by President Clinton in 1993. She is a professor emerita of the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and remains active in public health education.
- Antonia Novello, a pediatric nephrologist who was the keynote speaker for this year’s Dartmouth Institute Class Day ceremony, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and was the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as surgeon general. After her tenure, she served as commissioner of health for the state of New York and vice president of Women and Children Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children’s Hospital at Florida Hospital, where she retired as executive director of public health policy.
Mental health support is available through Dartmouth 24/7 for students, faculty, and staff. Students experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Counseling Center at 603-646-9442.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call or text the nationwide Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use the online chat at 988lifeline.org/chat.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the venue.