by Richard Levin, MD
In November of 2016, The Arnold P. Gold Foundation awarded the US Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, its national Humanism in Medicine Award. That night he delivered a powerful speech in which he said The world is locked in a struggle between love and fear, and we must tip the scale towards love. He urged the audience to think of tipping that scale everywhere – at home, at work and in our communities.
This theme is characteristic of our 19th Surgeon General’s approach to the health problems in America and throughout the world and it was clear at a meeting entitled “Advancing Emotional Well-Being in America” on January 9 in Washington, DC, convened jointly with Dr. David Shulkin, the current Under Secretary for Health for the US Department of Veterans Affairs
I had the honor of representing the Gold Foundation at this prestigious gathering, along with thought leaders from the fields of medicine, public health, business, government, advocacy, education, the military and faith-based organizations.
The question for our consideration was nothing less than how to create a national agenda for emotional well-being – hard, maybe impossible for most of us to embrace, but no less overwhelming than the challenges already addressed by our conveners: providing healthcare for veterans, educating individuals and communities about HIV/AIDS, stopping the epidemic of opioid addiction and death, and providing affordable healthcare for all.
The day was divided into “snapshots” from science, practice, systems and policy and then a conversation to develop next steps. The range of observations was extraordinary.
- Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, summarized research showing that diet, stress control, activity and love reverse coronary heart disease, turn off cancer related genes and lengthen chromosomal telomeres potentially extending life.
- Shawn Achor, best-selling author and founder of GoodThink described in 8 minutes – as all the speakers did – the remarkable benefits of happiness and positive psychology on work and life.
- Eric Schoomaker, MD, PhD, Lieutenant General, US Army (Ret) described his work enhancing the role of compassion, relationships and community in the military and how connectedness and support were critical to the avoidance of mental illness on and after the battlefield.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, had the audience put away their cell phones and experience a collective, mindful reduction in stress. Others related these key elements of living to social determinants.
The assembly concluded that we should and must develop a national agenda for emotional well-being. That agenda will differ little from the focus on the intimate and critical relationship between care-giver and cared-for that the Gold Foundation has been supporting for nearly thirty years.