Anchors in the Storm

12/14/2016 09:17 am ET

The U.S. Presidential election brought to the forefront the unfinished business of our society. All of the unconscious fears and prejudices with which we have struggled over the arc of our country’s history were exposed. The endemic racism, the rampant sexism, the fear of the Other, the arrogance of wealth - all these shadowy aspects of our society were given shrill voice during the past year. It was as if our collective unconscious came roaring into the public sphere unfiltered and without shame. We have been confronted with our own dark side, and it is painful to acknowledge it.

As professionals in the healing business, how does this impact our work? What is our role in this time of exquisite vulnerability and danger? First of all, we have a responsibility to bear witness to what is happening in our communities. We see firsthand the violence, deprivation and economic inequities among our neighbors. We know that many do not have safe housing and secure jobs. We see how these basic conditions contribute to negative health impacts in the communities we serve. In many American cities, there is a twenty year life expectancy difference between rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Our society has unfinished business in addressing the economic conditions that contribute to obscene health disparities in our communities.

We witness each day the health toll that a poor environment exacts on our people. We spend more money on healthcare than any country on the planet yet we suffer from an epidemic of chronic disease. We know that many Americans don’t have healthy food to eat, safe drinking water and clean air to breathe. More than 20 million people suffer from asthma in America. One in two men and one in three women will get cancer in their lives. Two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. One in six children suffer from some form of learning disability. Each of these health conditions have critical environmental contributors. As a nation, we do not even guarantee that American children will be born toxic-free and grow up in healthy environments. We have many communities in which you can go to the corner and buy drugs, guns, tobacco and junk food but you can’t find fresh fruits and vegetables. We have unfinished business in addressing the upstream environmental conditions that contribute to the illness and rising health care costs in our society.

We are witness to the ongoing racism that continues to plague our society. We see it reflected in health disparities, in job disparities, in housing disparities, in rates of incarceration, and in the siting of polluting factories, pipelines and waste dumps. We heard racist rhetoric brazenly reinforced in our Presidential election. We have unfinished business in dealing with race in our society and it will continue to be an open wound in our collective psyche until we face our racial legacy and heal it over time.

We witness the toll that mental illness takes on our society in the epidemic of opioids, which killed more than 28,000 Americans in 2014. We know we have failed to effectively treat mental illness and trauma in our health care system, and at the same time we make it easy for people to buy semi-automatic weapons. And in the wake of the election, more and more people fear for their safety because they are immigrants or Muslims or African Americans or women or gay. We have unfinished business in addressing the pervasive anxiety that afflicts millions of Americans.

In a time when the public discourse has turned to targeting the Other and stripping away health protections, we in the health sector need to continue to speak the truth about what is happening in our communities and continue to build safety nets, not walls, for our people.

At the local level, we still have enormous influence to help our communities address the social and environmental conditions that create so much suffering and health impacts. In many American communities, we are the largest employer and biggest buyer of products and services. We can use our purchasing power, our workforce development and our community partnerships to help create healthy jobs and a more sustainable local economy. We can use our trusted political voice to advocate for policies that will strengthen our resilience, our tolerance, our safety and our commitment to an advanced energy economy. We can be anchors in the storm.

We need to continue to provide healing to individual patients but we also need to become healers of our communities and the planet which sustains us all. There has never been a time when society has needed the power of our healing more.

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