Guest Blog: It’s the end of the world as we know it… but do we feel fine?

As a part of PRMS’ ongoing commitment to behavioral health, we invited Deborah Shoemaker, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, to be our featured guest blogger this month and reflect on the current environment in Pennsylvania and the country at large. 

I started to write this article a few weeks ago in May when the commonwealth [Pennsylvania] was starting to open in phases. Yes, we had to speculate what Red, Yellow, and Green meant, but at least we had hope for a phased opening, based on “the science and the medical communities’ recommendations.”

Not all citizens, county commissioners, or even state legislators agreed with the criteria that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine, MD, created based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), medical researchers and epidemiologists, or even Dr. Anthony Fauci. Our governor took a strong stand to support the science, even providing limited liability protection to health care providers laboring in the trenches during this pandemic. Governor Wolf went further by cautioning rogue county commissioners and businesses who wanted to open early, warning against further outbreaks caused by prematurely opening hotspots across the state. His decisions were not popular, but they were necessary. Sometimes following the science is not always popular, but is necessary.

As a parent of a now-virtually graduated high school senior, I had mixed feelings when the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest. My first reaction was pride in how the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society (PaPS) staff worked so closely with chapter leadership and our educational chairs in canceling, postponing, and/or rescheduling educational meetings – often at a moment’s notice – the main goal always being the ensured safety of our members, staff, and presenters. Everyone has been short-of-amazing in making decisions, then and now, that will maximize the member educational experience and ensure that they are not causing any undue harm or angst to those involved in providing this important member benefit.

My second reaction was concern and angst about the pandemic — how, personally, it affected my son who now could not play his senior year of lacrosse or attend graduation with his friends; how, professionally, I felt when I knew PaPS’ members and their colleagues were exposing themselves daily to the pandemic, without the proper equipment, without knowing how long this pandemic will last, and with the risk of exposing loved ones to future harm. My final reaction (at least up until about the end of May) was hope in the process, knowing that we were going to roll with the punches and make things work, advocating for continued use of telemedicine, additional liability protections for all healthcare providers in all practice settings, increased funding for PPE equipment, additional COVID-19 testing, and enhanced treatment and services for mental health and substance use treatment.

However, my hope and anticipation dissipated on May 25th, when George Floyd lost his life as a result of a police stop in Minneapolis. I am a police chief’s daughter. However, my father never tolerated profiling, racial injustice, unfairness, or prejudice, nor expected us to stand for it. If he were alive, he would be sickened and embarrassed by some of his fellow officers. I am incensed.  No one should have to die the way George Floyd did.

I am not naïve to say that I will ever understand how George Floyd felt his entire life – I am not a black man. I am a [white] woman, one who has fought for everything in my life, but never at the level of George Floyd, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela. Although we were not rich by any means, I never had to stand in a soup line, be profiled or charged because of the color of my skin, or face bullying because of my gender preference. I have not yet been truly persecuted because of my religious choice, or because of my political affiliation, or my medical conditions.

Psychiatrists have dedicated their lives to serve the most disenfranchised – those who often cannot or will not speak for themselves. Those who are stigmatized daily for their biological-based illnesses; substance use, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder – you name it – and are judged by it. These mental health issues, in tandem with identifying as LGBTQ, or being a man or woman of color, an immigrant, or homeless, present even deeper challenges. The daily, tireless commitment of psychiatrists inspires me to be a better person, advocating for true change regardless of the cost. Although often we may feel like the REM song lyrics, “it’s the end of the world as we know it,” we can keep striving for a better world – and we must. The hard work, medical expertise, and care of our healthcare providers is not unnoticed. Doctors, thank you for continuing to fight the good fight!

In closing, I would like to quote two of my favorite leaders: John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although they came from diversely different backgrounds, the civil rights war they fought together still lives on today. May we endeavor to pass on their values to our children, our patients, our world. This may seem like the “end of the world as we know it,” but it can also be the start of a newer, better world – one where we learn to be kind and treat others with empathy and understanding.

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”

  • John F. Kennedy

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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