Too Much Stress? Former Surgeon General Says Doctors Need to Recognize America's Mental Health Problem

We've all felt it, whether we're worried about paying our bills, succeeding in a high-pressure job, or looming existential threats like natural disasters or massive wars: stress. But it's much easier to recognize stress than to stop it.

And in remarks made at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a subset of the National Institutes of Health, the former surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, pointed out that doctors and other medical professionals still have a long way to go when it comes to confronting what he called an "epidemic of stress in America"—in part because they're so familiar with the feeling themselves.

"I don't think we're doing a good job at all when it comes to helping healthcare providers address stress in their patients, or even really fully recognize the impact that stress has," Murthy said. "Part of it is because we're not doing a good job helping healthcare providers themselves recognize and manage the impact of stress in their own lives." Small doses of stress can be beneficial, but it becomes dangerous if left unchecked, contributing to depression, addiction and high blood pressure.

Doctors are so used to stress they may overlook its dangers, said the former Surgeon General. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Murthy went on to explain that the training process for doctors isn't just grueling, it also emphasizes medical knowledge, sometimes to the detriment of other important skills like interacting with patients. He even compared the situation to cartoons of doctors telling patients not to smoke—while enjoying a cigarette themselves. "We need to be a part of changing the culture in the country around stress, but that starts in our own culture in medicine," he added.

A range of tactics can help buffer against stress, including building strong social connections, getting enough sleep, exercising and tapping into contemplative practices like meditation.

Scientists have struggled to gather strong data supporting some of these interventions, like meditation, which is tricky to design a randomized controlled study about, since there's not really a placebo for it. But Murthy said that what evidence does exist is promising, and talking about its potential more is key to getting scientists the funding they need to get better data.

"Open-mindedness has been a hallmark of science, but we have to protect that, we can sometimes get close-minded in science," he said, adding that medical professionals need to remember that a "potential marvel therapy" could come from an unlikely place.

But although he was clear to say medical professionals need to be prioritizing stress management, Murthy also called for a broader social response to the problem, comparing what he'd like to see to the broad teamwork that helped reduce tobacco use by teenagers.

The first step of that is establishing healthier norms for thinking about stress. "Stress is not evidence of weakness or of personal failure," Murthy said. And it's also important to think of stress within societies, particularly since relationships can be key to helping people cope with stress. Murthy, who was appointed by President Obama and whom the Trump administration asked to resign in April, encouraged people to think about how they can address stress in the lives of people around them.

"Our job is to think about how we create a culture that truly does value and support everyone, that helps to address stress," he said. "If we can do that, I believe we can build a country that's more compassionate and more kind, a country that's not weaker but in fact that recognizes that our emotions, when properly cultivated and directed, are our greastest source of strength."