By Janell Gore | South Kern Sol

The California Endowment and the U.S Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy  held a two day conference in Los Angeles called Youth Mental Health Wellness Now. The conference consisted of several breakout sessions and panels with youth, professionals, and influencers like Kendrick Sampson. 

Topics discussed included what mental health meant to the speakers, how to prioritize mental health in storytelling, and what people that are advocating can do better. 

At the end of the first day Murthy provided the chance for young people at the conference to interview him personally. Kern Sol News got Murthy’s input on different issues impacting Kern County. 

1 What was your office’s strategy in educating youth in getting vaccinated and where do you think the disconnect is with getting young people vaccinated? 

▪ So I would say an important foundation of the vaccine strategy was to work closely with community partners that had existing relationships and communities that were trusted. So when it came to getting younger people information about the vaccine, I should just back up and say that my belief, you know, as a doctor is that people have a right to make their own health decisions, but they should have accurate information. You know, we should do everything we can to make sure they have accurate information. So one of our core strategies was to make sure that we were working with schools, with parent associations, with youth organizations, with faith organizations and many other community organizations to help them and support them with the information they needed to talk to their communities. We also spoke directly on many occasions to the public, whether that was directly through interviews or going around directly to communities and visiting communities to do events and going to schools and colleges. But really, it was the effort to build, you know, partnerships with local community organizations that really made a difference. We built something called the COVID 19 Community Court, which has more than 17,000 community organizations and individuals in it who are an important part of that process. 

2 How is the mental health of youth coming out of the pandemic being prioritized? 

▪ As you know, because of the pandemic, we’ve seen anxiety and depression rates rise. We saw suicide rates skyrocket before the pandemic. And a lot of young people are really struggling right now. That’s one of the reasons why I issued a surgeon general’s advisory in December on youth mental health because I wanted to call our entire country to attention and action to address this crisis. And we laid out in that advisories concrete actions that various sectors could take. And we’re not stopping there. One of the reasons that we’re here in California is because as communities respond to that advisory and start taking action, we want to do everything we can to support them. So today at the Youth Mental Health Summit here in L.A., we had more than 75 commitments that organizations made from across the country to help advance youth mental health. We had, thankfully, many young people who came to raise their hand and say, look, I want to be a part of this broader movement that we’re building to address youth mental health concerns. So we’re going to keep doing this work around the country. 

3 In Kern County, many rural communities were impacted the hardest during the pandemic and don’t have the same resources to seek help. Many of them struggle to even find good doctors, for example, a lot of residents have to go to L.A. if they want to go to doctors, depending on what we’re struggling with. So, what do you think would be a good plan to help get equitable equitable health resources for these communities?

▪ Equity really is at the heart of our approach to health. We know that as a country, we’re not well until everybody is well.  But it’s also about making sure that we knock down some of the barriers to getting care that traditionally impact, disproportionately impact, you know, underserved communities. And that means, for example, bringing care to where people are, you know, if you got to like, you know, go to somebody 30 miles away, you know, in order to get your care. That means if I don’t have a car, it’s gonna be a lot harder for me to get there. Right? And so we have to use technology better. And so part of what, you know, that we’re working on with Congress is to knock down some of these barriers to telemedicine to make sure people can provide care across state lines. And we also want to get more counselors into schools, recognizing that’s where most young people are and they’re in schools and universities and colleges. We can get more counselors into those settings and we can get them here earlier than they’re traditionally getting. And so like this, you know, we’ve got to knock down the barriers to care, including insurance barriers. And we shouldn’t stop until we get to a point where everybody who needs care can get high quality care and can get to in a timely way.

4 The Kern High School District was sued in 2017 for suspending and expelling students of color at extremely high rates. They continue to feed into the school to prison pipeline instead of looking into the mental health of the students of color and seeing the underlying issues many of them face. How can institutions prioritize the mental health of these students instead of pushing them out? 

▪ I mean, it’s important, I think, for us to ask why. You know, when kids run into trouble, like what is going on in their lives and what can we do to actually help? And some of this means that we’ve got to invest not only in mental health programs, but in the broader social services and supports that young people and families need. This is why we all sort of recognize this is a job that we can’t ask teachers to do on their own. I think the schools and teachers in particular are already asked to do so much. What we have to do is provide additional resources to them so they can bring more counselors and social workers into schools, so they can provide wraparound services for young people and in some cases for their families as well. That’s how we start to address some of the deeper root causes. I do think also investing in social emotional learning curriculum is also very important. You know, that’s part of what helps give young people foundations for mental health and well-being and for building strong relationships, you know, earlier in life. So these are some of the tools that we have to equip people with. And it’s why I think that we’ve got to look at schools as not just places where people learn how to read and write, you know, and do arithmetic, but places where young people can develop the foundation for mental health and for well-being that can serve them well, you know, for years to come.