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Violence: the other pandemic

Violence is a public health concern. This week, I was personally affected.

Early Wednesday morning, as I walked across the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma, a man whom I had never met, attacked me.

First, let me say up front, I am fine. I drove myself to the emergency room and got specialty treatment in the afternoon. I am banged up and sore but do not have serious injuries.

I am fortunate I was able to walk away from this attack and I am overwhelmed with the many heartfelt well-wishes from family, friends, and colleagues.

The attack happened after I noticed a man damaging public property. I calmly tried to engage him in conversation but I could see he was escalating, so I disengaged and walked away. Suddenly, he knocked me down from behind and punched me as I stood up. He continued to attack me even as I tried to back away. Naturally, I reported the attack to the police. Their investigation is ongoing.

People have asked me: was I targeted because I was Asian or because of my role as Director of Health at the Health Department?

I do not think so, but the fact that people have to ask is a sad commentary for our times. I recently wrote about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic. Public health officials nationwide have been threatened, fired, or pushed to resign as they made difficult and unpopular decisions; Washington public health officials have suffered as well.

We have seen a surge in violence in recent years. Media have covered the killing of George Floyd and the Capitol insurrection. But there has also been a sharp rise in homicides during the pandemic. And let us not forget that domestic violence, bullying, road rage, gang violence, and other violence continue even if not in the news.

As a physician I have cared for victims of violence. The harm they suffer is beyond their immediate injuries and may include:

  • Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Loss of function, whether at school, work, or home.
  • Loss of self-esteem and impaired social skills.
  • Chronic pain and physical disabilities.

I am not angry at the man who attacked me. I heard him say that he did not feel his actions were damaging public property. I heard his frustration that there were not places he could practice tricks on his BMX bike in Tacoma. What I do feel is disappointment that he chose to deal with his disagreement and frustration with physical violence.

Was this person traumatized in the past? Was he a victim of violence or suffered Adverse Childhood Experiences growing up? Did he grow up in a home where his role models were violent or abusive? Was he never afforded opportunities to develop social and emotional skills at home or in school? Was his socioeconomic background or neighborhood such that he had to be tough to survive? Has he been caught up in our nationwide trend towards extremism and away from civil discourse? Whatever the combination, he could not regulate his physical and emotional state.

There are individual factors and then there are social, economic, and environmental conditions that predispose people to violent behavior. Just as with racism, institutions and systems also exist that perpetuate violence, poverty, and injustice.

I will heal from the violent encounter and—as Director of Health for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department—I will do everything in my capacity to help heal our communities and prevent violence of all forms.

Together, we can shift attitudes and behaviors. We can dismantle the institutions and systems that perpetuate violence, poverty, injustice, and racism. We can identify and treat mental health and substance issues. We can eliminate adverse community environments and replace them with supportive environments that promote healthy social and emotional development and resilience.

We can do this, Pierce County. Let the healing begin.

 Dr Chen