July 21, 2016

Rounds: A message from the President and CEO of VUMC

Acts of horrific violence surrounding issues of race, religion, and sexual orientation seem to be happening weekly. How are we, as a medical center and as individuals, experiencing these events?

Dear Colleagues,

Acts of horrific violence surrounding issues of race, religion, and sexual orientation seem to be happening weekly. How are we, as a medical center and as individuals, experiencing these events?

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D.

The violence that has taken place recently in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and a host of other U.S. cities and towns is affecting all of us. We are experiencing the horror almost as if we are direct witnesses, through 24-hour news channels and social media. Overseas terrorist attacks, particularly in regions we think of as “safe,” such as Nice, Paris, or Brussels, amplify our anxieties.

But for those who experience the very real manifestations of prejudice and hatred in daily life, the traumatic impact is far more serious. It can even be emotionally disabling.

I am concerned for our country, for the safety of those working in law enforcement and for the families losing loved ones in the midst of these tragedies. But I am also concerned for the well-being of people here who are not in the news stories, but are suffering right now as they experience these events psychologically and emotionally. Our own people, coworkers and students, are suffering as the situations playing out in the national and world media may trigger memories of fears and, sometimes, prior traumatic life experiences.

How real is this concern? As a world-leading research center, it is perhaps natural for us to consider the question through the lens of the science literature. Studies funded by the National Science Foundation and the Josiah Macy Foundation found repeated exposure to images of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing evoked high levels of acute psychological stress and higher rates of health problems. A National Institute of Mental Health-funded study also found that people repeatedly exposed to violent images experienced a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those who mirror the demographics of the people or groups victimized in these videos — whether African-American, LGBT, Muslim or families of police officers — are likely to be impacted even more significantly than the general population. We need to be aware that many people at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who are members of these groups, working and learning every day in our midst, are experiencing very real psychological stress — even though they may not have suffered physical harm. Further evidence shows that individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions and young children are especially vulnerable to repeated exposure to violent images.

Of course, an even more important lens on this issue is one we can control, and leverages the distinctively warm and people-focused VUMC culture we cherish. If you take a moment to talk with people working in our midst, particularly those who by all appearances “seem fine” but identify with groups we know are under attack, I believe you will be astounded by what you learn.

I’ve begun to engage in these conversations, and through moving past the discomfort of raising these issues, my own sensitivity to the pervasive extent of the stress people are experiencing — mostly in silence — has intensified. Through these conversations, we not only raise our individual sensitivity to the reality our associates live every day, but we also elevate the collective sensitivity of VUMC as a caring organization. Moreover, in encouraging one another to give voice to these anxieties in a supportive and compassionate way, we set an even higher bar for what it means to be caring, safe and supportive in the workplace. And in a place that seeks primarily to heal, we all allow ourselves to become a special source of healing.

Last week, we announced Dr. André Churchwell will serve us all in the newly created role of Chief Diversity Officer for VUMC. As he works with all areas to increase diversity and inclusion, I’ve asked him to focus particularly on some of the most intransigent barriers to realizing the inclusive culture to which we all aspire — that is, the systemic, embedded behaviors that typically go unnoticed due to unconscious bias.

To launch these efforts, André will soon begin hosting a series of lectures, workshops, forums and town halls to broaden our dialogue around those who are impacted by prejudice. I hope everyone will find ways to participate in these programs.

In addition to engaging in these programs, we can all take small steps to create an environment of inclusion and help those who may be hurting. That may be a quiet conversation, a simple “How are you today?” Or it may be our silent presence, letting coworkers know that we are there for them if they need us.

In processing issues of stress and trauma, we encourage anyone impacted to contact Work/Life Connections for a conversation or counseling at http://healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu/work-life/.

Finally, it is essential that all of us at VUMC recommit visibly and openly, especially for our people who are suffering in silence, to be uncompromising in not condoning prejudice in any form. We also condemn violence, as attacks against those sworn to protect us diminish all of us, and in the process dehumanize the officers risking their lives for our very safety. We are sober about the reality that hardwiring inclusion into this very large organization that encounters people from all backgrounds, at times of extreme suffering and stress, will not be a single act.

This is, and will be, ongoing work that requires very real commitment and deliberate, conscious effort from everyone here.

We can’t know if or when the violence may slow down. To a significant degree, these events bear witness to malignant beliefs and behaviors that have all too often been invisible and are deeply connected to our history as a nation. So as we articulate our values about equality, compassion and respect for one another with a clear voice, let us also reaffirm how committed we are to supporting the people working here every day, and ensure our people know that this place — our place — is a safe and welcoming refuge from a troubled world.

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D.
President and CEO, VUMC
Dean, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine