Social Connection, Depression, and Suicide | The Surgeon General’s Social Media Advisory
By Stanton Peele,
PH.D., Founder, Life Process Program
As medical treatment for drug use and depression continue to increase, more people— often young people— suffer and die from each. What’s the connection? Is it social connection?
A strange phenomenon occurred during the Vietnam War. After the Secretaries of Defense who maintained the war — Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford — resigned, they each confessed that they had been conning the public about how well the war was going. Of course, as ex-public officials, nobody cared what they thought now.
A similar phenomenon has been occurring recently around mental health, depression, suicide and drug deaths. When a major government mental health figure resigns, he or she admits that the policies they endorsed actually increased years lost to drug and mental health deaths and disabilities.
The primary example of this strange betrayal of their oaths of office is Thomas Insel, who directed the National Institute of Mental Health from 2002-2015. As such he was the world’s foremost proponent of neuroscientific research and treatments for mental illness.
But since leaving NIMH Insel tells a different story. He now says that the $billions spent on neuroscientific research was wasted — that it discovered nothing, produced no useful treatments, and that in fact American mental health has deteriorated severely since the 1990s, when the current neuroscience mania commenced.
What will reverse this descent into madness Insel now highlights? The answer: reversing investment in medical treatment and rebuilding disappearing social supports for people.
A more present version of this story has occurred with the current Surgeon General, Viveck Murthy. Murthy has resumed this position after an interim, having also been SG under Obama and Trump. As such, Murthy was seemingly obligated to issue a 2016 report that addiction, like mental illness, was a disease to be treated medically.
But Murthy too has reconsidered this as his primary position. After leaving the SG office the first time in 2017 (a position he resumed in 2021) Murthy wrote a 2020 book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
Hmmm — that doesn’t sound very medical.
And, consistent with this shift in his perspective, Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s advisory earlier this year addressing the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” affecting the country. To combat this epidemic, he laid out a framework for a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.”
This was followed by a second advisory in May that reverberated around the nation, “Social Media and Youth Mental Health.” Murthy pointed out the role of social media in what is widely acknowledged as the current youth mental health crisis.
That role has many facets, including giving unhealthy messages to teenage girls about body images and young people’s being victimized by social bullying.
But the primary way in which social media has destroyed youthful mental health is by isolating teens from other young people — indeed the world itself — in favor of holing up in their rooms and houses and dealing with the world through their electronic devices.
In this way, social media can themselves be addictive (one of the forms of addiction the Life Process Program deals with).
For children in particular, this is not a healthy way to live, grow and develop necessary emotional resources.
Of course, the solution for this problem cannot take the impossible form of eliminating social media. Instead, it requires overcoming parental fear to allow and encourage young people to engage with the world and other people. Which the Surgeon General has belatedly discovered. Remember Murthy’s book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” and Surgeon General advisory, “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.”
And, indeed, for some children social media can provide life-supporting benefits.
It’s a tough task to turn social media toward their positive uses, to be sure. But it is one for which there is no alternative.
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