Guest writer

OPINION | JOE THOMPSON: Reflect and heal

Come together, recognize shared pain

The loss of human life from covid-19 is staggering: To date, more than 6 million people worldwide, 988,000 in the U.S. and 11,000 in Arkansas have died from the virus, and we continue to lose more each day. Each person lost was someone's parent, grandparent, friend, colleague or teacher. A recent study published in The Lancet estimated that more than 5 million children around the world have lost a parent or caregiver to covid-19; we estimate as many as 2,000 children in Arkansas have.

In addition to our grief for those we have lost, we have suffered countless disruptions in our daily lives during the pandemic. Many of us have experienced loneliness and isolation as a result of social distancing; been unable to be with loved ones who were in hospitals or nursing homes; faced challenges related to shifts to remote learning; lost income as many businesses shut their doors; and felt anxiety about the future, our health and the health of our loved ones.

The mental health impacts of the pandemic have been devastating. A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that as of September 2021, about one in three U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from one in 10 in 2019.

Our young people have been especially affected: A study published April 11 in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 48 percent of young adults in the U.S. reported mental health symptoms in a survey conducted in June through early July 2021. And in September 2021, Arkansas Children's Hospital CEO Marcy Doderer reported that mental health disorders accounted for nearly 2.5 percent of emergency department visits at the hospital, a 150 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

The vast scale and ongoing nature of the pandemic, with new variants causing wave after wave of infections, have made it difficult to pause and reflect on--or even comprehend--the losses and the layers of trauma we have suffered. Unlike most other tragedies, there has not been a clearly defined end point when we could take stock of what we have experienced and begin the healing process.

That is why the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement's board is proposing that Arkansas' community and faith leaders organize and lead a day of reflection and healing in their communities on April 27. In a statement issued earlier this month, the ACHI Health Policy Board said, "This will provide an opportunity for community members to come together to acknowledge the lasting pain from the pandemic and show those who are grieving that they are not alone. It will also be an opportunity to thank those who have made a difference in our lives during the pandemic and to offer hope and courage to those who are struggling to cope."

I urge leaders across the state to heed our board's call. Many of us may feel we've been suffering alone, but we haven't been; we have all experienced this pandemic, and by coming together as communities to recognize that fact, I hope we can begin to heal.

Joe Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., is president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and was Arkansas' surgeon general under Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe.