Published September 23, 2022 by Rebecca Goldfine

US Surgeon General Joins Bowdoin-organized Forum on Youth Mental Health

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday joined a forum in New York City that was organized by the Bank of America and Bowdoin College to address the mental health crisis among of young people. Last December, he issued a rare public advisory on the topic, the first of his term under President Biden.
President Rose and  Vivek Murthy
President Clayton Rose questions US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about the mental health crisis in young people today. Rose called Murthy "a dedicated public servant who is incredibly smart, thoughtful, wise, and deeply engaged."

President Clayton Rose and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann worked with Sheri Bronstein, the chief human resource officer at the bank, along with senior colleagues Chris Fabro and Anne Oxrider, to launch the annual forum in 2019. Rose serves on the Bank of America's board of directors.

The forum brings together high school principals, college and university presidents and deans, and human resource professionals from corporations, like Johnson & Johnson and PwC.

Each of these groups of institutions—high schools, colleges and business—have been confronting the mental health crisis among young people, and the forum is an opportunity to share experiences, ideas, and challenges across the continuum, and to focus in particular on the transition points from high school to college and college to work. 

Over the past three years, the group of about forty people from across the country has convened five times, continuing to meet virtually throughout the pandemic. All care "deeply about the problem of youth mental health and want to employ resources in the right way," Rose said.   

The overarching theme of the mental health forum is to examine "what mental health looks like across the spectrum from high school, to college, to first job," Lohmann explained. "We learn from one another, share a language around mental health, and discuss what we can do as a collective, from developing best practices to supporting one another in this critical work."

At the most recent forum, held last week in New York City, Rose moderated a Q&A session with Murthy, during which the Surgeon General explained that a public advisory is "reserved for significant public health challenges that need the nation’s immediate awareness and action."

In the advisory, "Protecting Youth Mental Health," Murthy warns that young people today face an unprecedented and uniquely challenging path to adulthood. National surveys show 40 percent more high schoolers reported feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness in 2019 than in 2009. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages ten to twenty-four in the U.S. increased 57 percent. 

One the topics raised by the group with Murthy was the role of social media in young people’s lives, and the access they have via iPhones and personal computers to "toxic information and websites."

"We spoke about the responsibilities that social media companies have around this," Rose said.

At the same time, they noted that others can play a role. "You have to attack the problem from every angle—everyone has a certain set of responsibilities," Rose added. In this vein, the advisory targets its recommendations to specific groups: young people, families and caregivers, educators, health care providers, media and technology companies, community organizations, foundations, employers, and governments.

"Dr. Murthy was clear that it is a way to muster resources from all corners of society around this problem," Rose said. "Public awareness is critical. Without public awareness and public support, it is difficult to get political support."

They also discussed what the health care system and insurance companies could do to increase access to mental health help and to make it affordable.

And they remarked on how the pandemic turned what was already a significant issue into a crisis. "COVID has amplified everything," Rose said.

Forum Speakers

Past guests at the mental health forum have been experts in mental health and counseling:

  • Ben Locke, chief clinical director of Togetherall, an online telehealth resource
  • Daniel Eisenberg, professor of health policy and management at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA
  • Stephanie Bell Rose, a board director of The Steve Fund, which supports the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color
  • Nance Roy, chief clinical officer of the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for teens and young adults
  • Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness
The group
The mental health forum was held in person in Boston again, the first time since 2019.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Since all of the forum attendees are part of the arc of a young person's life, they inevitably focus on the transitions that link them. "Who are we inheriting from high schools? And who are corporations inheriting from us?" Lohmann said. "Is there something high schools, colleges, and universities should be doing to better prepare students for the future?"

Throughout the daylong event, the forum's attendees try to make sense of this widespread and complicated social phenomena. More tangibly, they also discuss possible solutions. Participants share not only the programs and plans that have been successful in their institutions, but also ones that have failed, Lohmann said.

Rose emphasized that one of the major themes of the forums has been around the best utilization of organizations' staff, technology, and budgets. "While Bowdoin has added significant resources to the problem, one thing all forum participants agree on is that there is a limit to how many resources any one organization can add," he said. "So, we have to do this work smarter and better."

A lesson Bowdoin has taken away from the forums has been to distill its focus to three main areas of action: awareness, access, and prevention, Lohmann said.

Janet Lohmann
Janet Lohmann, senior vice president and dean for student affairs

Raising awareness requires destigmatizing mental illness—to bring a once secretive part of life out in the open for examination and healing. But Bowdoin's approach also highlights the ubiquity of hardship, struggle, and self-doubt. "Life presents challenges and they’re not always clinical," Lohmann said.

"We work with students around any number of situations and give them the toolkits they need to find their way through them."

Bowdoin has broadened its access to care by providing students with a comprehensive Counseling and Wellness center, as well as telehealth options. This way, students can be treated by Bowdoin's staff of clinicians and counselors, as well as use online educational and coping resources and engage in crisis management and short-term counseling via text, phone, and video sessions.

Students can also reach out to a network of providers in Maine who prioritize Bowdoin students for counseling, psychiatric care, and psychological assessment.

Prevention at Bowdoin is provided in part by its wellness classes and one-on-one coaching that help students take better care of themselves mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually, and financially.  

Lohmann said this moment—while challenging—offers an opportunity for our society to change and grow. "On many levels we have destigmatized mental health, and this is a really important gift. We continue to work at finding ways to address these issues and what it means for young adults and their ability to navigate challenges and find success in life."