Building our social muscle to form deeper connections: A lesson from the U.S. Surgeon General

University of Miami President, Julio Frenk, and US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, speak about mental health on Feb. 22, 2024 Photo credit: Cecelia Runner

A passion for mental health, a desire to reach students, and a speech from the U.S. Surgeon General that inspired the hearts of the audience to reach out to their loved ones and shine their flashlight as a symbol of the power of human connection.

On Feb. 22, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, alongside UM President Julio Frenk, spoke to students on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation and its rapid acceleration, especially amongst college students in recent years.

Emily Goldstein, a senior at UM studying community and applied psychological studies and psychology, and the chair of Counseling Outreach Peer Educators (COPE), opened the event, giving her thoughts and evident passion for creating an open dialogue for mental health between college students.

“Dr. Murthy listened to us student leaders actively, with a fervor that one rarely sees, especially when relating to young people,” said Goldstein. “He has prioritized youth mental health and brought it into the forefront of political minds, exemplifying how critical it is to destigmatize these conversations.”

Dr. Murthy, who has served as surgeon general to former President Barack Obama and currently under President Joe Biden, touched on topics such as how social media usage is increasingly impacting young people’s mental health, the impact of COVID-19 further accelerating the trend of social disconnection, the importance having more open discussions of mental health.

Much of the discussion and statistics that came from Dr. Murthy’s discussions were shocking for many in the audience. According to Dr. Murthy, 1 in 2 adults have measurable levels of loneliness and the mortality impact of social disconnection is greater than smoking and obesity.

University of Miami President, Julio Frenk, and US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, speak about mental health on Feb. 22, 2024
University of Miami President, Julio Frenk, and US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, speak about mental health on Feb. 22, 2024 Photo credit: Cecelia Runner

Dr. Murthy included personal anecdotes about his life lessons with both personal and professional experiences when looking into how the mental health crisis has spread out through society.

“If I can tell you one thing about what I’ve learned my whole life in general, it’s that it is captured by the lessons I picked up from patients at the end of their lives,” said Dr. Murthy to the attentive audience.

On the whole, it was never the financial gains, social media followers, or superficialities of life. “They always talked about their relationships. The people who brought them joy, the people that they loved and the people who broke their hearts.”

In an interview with The Miami Hurricane before the event, Dr. Murthy discussed how people’s struggles with feelings of isolation were growing well before COVID-19, with the pandemic only exacerbating this trend.

“Many still feel like they’re trying to get comfortable with social interaction and it is more of an effort than it used to be,” said Dr. Murthy.

Dr. Murthy also discussed steps taken that could make a difference in how connected we feel, including “having a conversation with someone, drawing our boundaries on the use of technology to have high-quality interactions and finding small ways to help other people in our lives.”

With growing polarization in a post-pandemic world, Dr. Murthy argues this has especially been amplified by the use of social media.

“It feels so much harder to go up and actually start a conversation with somebody you don’t know,” said Murthy. “We as a society have lost our “social muscle” and need more ways to spend unstructured time with others to build this muscle”

We want to protect three zones in particular: sleep, in person time with others, and our learning,” said Dr. Murthy. According to Dr. Murthy, each of these areas should not be impacted by the use of technology and this further drives us away from social connection and towards isolation.

Loneliness is a growing epidemic especially in student populations struggling to maintain a healthy relationship with social media. According to Dr. Murthy, 80% of the student body at Arizona State University had measurable levels of loneliness.

There is a push from the U.S. Surgeon General to provide strong safety standards for social media, just as there are safety measures for cars. Both are equally as damaging and mental health issues can result in serious physical effects.

As Dr. Murthy concluded his discussion, he urged the audience to participate in the 5-for-5 connection challenge to choose five actions for five days to further connect with people in their lives, whether this be expressing gratitude or extending support to someone who needs it.

At the end of the event, the audience was urged by Dr. Murthy to send a text to someone in their lives and express gratitude for their love and support. Each audience member was then asked to hold up their flashlights on their phones once they were done, and each person followed suit until the entire auditorium was illuminated.

“Each of these rays is a connection that has gone out into the world,” Dr. Murthy said. “Someone is going to receive that, and they are going to feel better about their lives. They are going to remember their connection to you – that is the power of human connection.”