Those of us who work at the Brattleboro Retreat were horrified by the situation that resulted in the death of George Floyd. The ensuing mass demonstrations in cities across the nation have been both inspiring and heartbreaking to watch.
At the same time, we recognize that the anger now playing out from coast-to-coast (and in some parts of Europe) is not a consequence of the single, unjust murder of an African American man at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Racism, poverty, social injustice, and educational inequality are embedded in our country and have a profound impact on people's ability to thrive. These are the precursors to hopelessness, and powerful contributors to emotionally destructive experiences involving trauma, abuse, anxiety, and insecurity.
Issues such as these are not unknown in Vermont. The tendency of some police officers in our state to disproportionately use force on black residents has been covered in the press. According to the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2017 black adults in Vermont entered correctional facilities at seven times the rate of white adults.
Proponents of white supremacy in our state have been emboldened in recent years. In 2018, members of a Texas-based neo-Nazi group were alleged to have put up posters in Brattleboro reading "Black Lives Don't Matter." And racial harassment recently forced the resignation of state Representative Kiah Morris...the first person of color elected as a state representative from Bennington County.
Even here at our hospital we've seen a handful of reports of patients who over the years have refused to work with staff members who are African American.
The Brattleboro Retreat enthusiastically commends efforts being made across Vermont to address racism. These include Governor Phil Scott's newly-appointed Racial Equity Task Force, which will spend some of its mandate on addressing the racial disparities in health outcomes highlighted by COVID-19.
Others include the Root Social Justice Center here in Brattleboro, the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, the Vermont chapter of the NAACP, and countless others who are working each day for social justice.
While the work of these groups is extremely important and needs to be supported and continued, we should not kid ourselves into thinking that a centuries-old scourge as deep and troubling as racism can be eradicated only by addressing the symptoms.
The prize we seek will require us to dig much deeper as individuals and as a society.
Mental health professionals often assist patients in overcoming their challenges by providing them with a safe space to fearlessly explore their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and motivations. One of the most powerful and effective tools we have in our tool kit is the act of listening. It's through this willingness to listen that patients eventually come to know they are truly being heard...and start to get better.
As Americans, we will not fully address racism until we make a commitment to listen to those who have suffered from its violence and oppression. And we will have to keep at it for as long as it takes until communities who are shouting out for justice and equality see that they are genuinely being heard. Only then can we move forward and heal as a country.