We Will Forge A Pathway Forward

This is not the column I originally planned for this month.

Like many Georgians, I expected that the worst of the COVID pandemic would be behind us by now and that we would be celebrating back-to-school, enjoying return to sports, and anticipating cooler days ahead. Instead, we find ourselves enduring—trying to hold on as this global disease continues to wreak havoc on our healthcare system; trying to accept what we cannot change as the pandemic continues to hamper our travel plans and ability to gather without fear, and trying to cope as COVID continues to take the lives of people we love and admire in our communities. It’s maddening.

I know I am not alone in feeling frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment at the current state of the pandemic. As we well know, it is important to acknowledge these feelings, as this is part of our mental well-being. Amid damaging weather events and a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the scale and the scope of challenges that stretch beyond our state borders and touch the heart of humanity. It’s easy to wonder when our empathy might run out or if we’ll become callous to tragedy. I hope that you might find a way to join me in seeking out optimism, despite the daunting challenges before us.

I am energized by the strength and wisdom of those around me that lead me to important beliefs.

First, our collective resilience is more powerful than we imagined. Our experience with COVID has demonstrated this to be true. We see the evidence in individual acts of heroism, including the act of love and compassion that is showing up for work each day. I believe this to be particularly true of the staff working throughout our public safety net—whether in our state hospitals, across our crisis network, or outpatient settings—where the call to serve has been relentless and the duty assignment, increasingly more difficult. The love and compassion you have shown to your fellow Georgians amidst this enduring crisis is worthy of praise and proof of our ability to survive and support each other in the process.

I am grateful for each of our team members, including those extensions of our team at the community service boards and those from private agencies who work alongside us in the state hospitals and in community crisis units. You choose every day to be there for someone in need. You choose to carry out the mission of recovery and independence. You choose to Be DBHDD.

In addition to our collective resilience, knowledge is also a reason for hope. We know that vaccines play a major role in preventing the spread of COVID, as well as reducing the burden of illness when breakthrough cases occur. I am so proud of our hospital leadership and their tireless efforts to encourage and facilitate vaccination for staff and patients, and to remain vigilant regarding the use of PPE. Thanks to this leadership, we have a vaccine penetration rate of 66 percent across our hospital system. The rate is remarkably high at Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta, where, under the leadership of Dr. Charles Li, more than 82 percent of the team is vaccinated. Vaccines are vital to defeating this pandemic, and you are using the available knowledge to help protect yourself and others, and ultimately, help us end it. That gives me hope.

There are silver linings that also fuel my optimism. As has been noted, one other result of the pandemic and its sprawling reach is that public awareness regarding the importance of mental well-being has never been greater. We see the healthcare dialogue changing right before our eyes so that mental illness and addiction are seen less as fringe or specialty concerns, but rather right at the heart of overall wellness. This is especially true where children and youth are concerned, and we are fortunate that leaders across the state are keyed in and considering what we can do to provide additional support and access to reduce the impact of anxiety, isolation, and depression across the life span. This is a life-saving paradigm shift, and we cannot go backward.

And finally, our optimism comes from each other. On any given day, we may have to draw from the optimism of another person in our network or be the source of hope for others. We are stronger when we lean on each other and when we acknowledge each other’s challenges.

To our partners across the community-based network of care for people with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities: We see you and we hear you and we know that the workforce shortages have drastic impacts on what you can do. We are here for you. We will continue to work with you to direct any possible federal emergency dollars to address our growing system needs. We are grateful for your continued willingness to serve, despite these seemingly insurmountable barriers.

We are in this together, and together is how we will forge a pathway forward.