Podcast - Ep 53: The critical importance of shared humanity

Content Warning

This story contains references to themes of suicide which some individuals may find distressing.

College of Public Health Dean Melissa Perry behind the mic in the podcast studio. She as she answers Mason President Gregory Washington's questions

Dean Melissa Perry joins Mason president Gregory Washington in the studio to discuss to 'epidemic of loneliness' and the importance of a shared humanity.  

Photo credit:
Photo credit
Cristian Torres/George Mason University

Melissa Perry, dean of George Mason University’s College of Public Health, is an ardent proponent of virtual reality and AI as tools to help solve the nation’s health challenges. But, as she tells Mason President Gregory Washington, a technology overload has also helped create an “epidemic of loneliness” that has heightened the importance of a shared humanity and “being present for each other.” Perry also discusses her suicide attempt as a teenager which ultimately inspired her career in public health.

    Getting back to my point about ensuring we remain focused on access and equity, making sure we don’t create digital divides by whatever strategies we’re using AI for. We want to make sure our advancements and our improvements will benefit population health, not just privileged populations that are inclined to navigate sophisticated systems. We want to make it as accessible and level the playing field for everyone."

Read the Transcript

Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers in research, innovators in technology, and those who simply have a good story all make up the fabric that is George Mason University, where taking on the grand challenges that face our students graduates and higher education is our mission and our passion hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington. This is the Access to Excellence podcast. This podcast includes a discussion about suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. You can also contact the crisis text line at 741-741. These services are free and confidential.

Gregory Washington:
Melissa Perry grew up in rural Vermont about six miles from the Canadian border. As she prepared to attend the University of Vermont in Burlington, she fretted about driving in the city because as she said, it would be too scary and too complicated. But there is nothing timid about what Dr. Perry, the Dean of George Mason University's College of Public Health, the first college of public health in Virginia, has accomplished in her career. Dr. Perry is the immediate past co-chair of the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine Committee on Emerging Science. And she is an ardent proponent of virtual reality as a tool to help solve what she calls Virginia's triple health crisis: A dramatic rise in opioid overdoses, the growing demand for mental health services, and the declining supply of qualified healthcare practitioners. She also has a famous relative singer, Katie Perry, which we'll talk about. Dr. Perry, welcome to the show,

Melissa Perry (02:00):

Dr. Washington. I couldn't be more excited to be here. Thanks so much.

Gregory Washington (02:03):

Let's just get things started here. I'm curious what it was like for you, coming from a small town in Highgate, Vermont. Is it true that you were one of only two students in your graduating class to go on to college?

Melissa Perry (02:17):

It is true, in fact. So I went to Missisquoi Valley Union High School, so it was a union school that had several different feeder towns, and I was coming from Highgate, Vermont, and the students from my town, there was a handful of about 30 or so students, and only two of us ended up going to college. So of our 400-student graduating class two from Highgate, Vermont went to college.

Gregory Washington (02:44):

So what did the other students do?

Melissa Perry (02:46):

Well, in Highgate, it's a really small town, as you mentioned, just six miles south of the Canadian border. Not a lot of industry, not a lot of opportunity to be upwardly mobile, economically mobile. So folks would sometimes farm. They sometimes would work in local stores or gas stations. Sometimes they would go into logging, oftentimes into construction. But they oftentimes stayed close to home and really didn't venture far out of our town of Highgate in our county of Franklin County, Vermont.

Gregory Washington (03:19):

So you go to the University of Vermont. How did your time there change your worldview and maybe even guide your career choices? How did that happen?

Melissa Perry (03:27):

Going to university had a huge impact on me. During high school, I had a really troubled time, and it was quite unlikely that I would go to college. A lot of folks didn't believe that I was gonna be able to make it. And when I finally arrived at the University of Vermont, if you can imagine this, it was the first time that I ever had health insurance. So prior to that, growing up in Vermont, our health insurance policy was essentially don't get sick, um, <laugh>. So I arrive on campus and it was very overwhelming because being from a tiny town, I hadn't had a lot of metropolitan experiences. I hadn't really ventured far out of my town, whereas Burlington, Vermont, really felt like a metropolis. And there were so many students coming from other states who had a lot more resources and a lot more travel, and a lot of exposure to a lot of parts of the world that I'd never seen myself. And in fact, there was a disparaging term for people coming directly from Vermont. They were referred to as woodchucks. And so I was seen as a woodchuck my first year in college. Ultimately, I was able to overcome that feeling of inhibition and embarrassment, but really showing up for the first time in Burlington, Vermont on that campus was, in the beginning very intimidating and very overwhelming, but ultimately it became, education became so affirming for me. I understood once that door opened, I just wanted to keep going.

Gregory Washington (04:56):

That is the liberating power of education, isn't it?

Melissa Perry (04:59):

Absolutely. Absolutely. That's my story.

Gregory Washington (05:02):

So tell me a little bit about your relationship to Katy Perry.

Melissa Perry (05:06):

So Katy Perry, my father left our family when I was really young. I was like two years old when he first left. And he was essentially estranged from our family. It was my brother and mother and me, and I didn't have a lot of connections with him over the years. Later on, I came to learn that he had a half-sister, so his father remarried and had a daughter, and that daughter was Christine. And Christine is Katie's mom. So in fact, Katie and I share the same paternal grandfather, and that makes us first half-cousins.

Gregory Washington (05:42):

First half cousins.

Melissa Perry (05:44):

That’s right, that's right.

Gregory Washington (05:45):

You know where I'm from. We just say, first cousin <laugh>,

Melissa Perry (05:50):

We share the same grandfather.

Gregory Washington (05:53):

No, understood. Understood. So let's talk a little bit about you being dean of the first College of Public Health in Virginia. You worked at public health colleges before, and I think when we got connected to you, you were at GW. But I know you've spent some time at John Hopkins, at Harvard, and at GW. Talk to us a little bit about why is the distinction of being a college of public health so important.

Melissa Perry (06:18):

Absolutely. Yes. I think altogether, I've been at schools and colleges of public health for almost 35 years. And in fact, right now there are over 30,000 students in the country that are getting degrees in schools, colleges, and programs of public health. They are studying at the undergraduate level, at the master's level, and at the doctoral level. They are studying epidemiology, they're studying health services, they're studying social determinants of health. They're studying environmental health, and infectious diseases. And here at our college, we also have components of public health that include nursing and also social work. So suffice it to say a college or school of public health makes sure that we have the opportunity to train in very focused ways to prepare a whole myriad of public health experts that can respond to the pressing needs of our country.

Gregory Washington (07:17):

So what is your vision for the college? Where do you want to take it and what kind of impact can it have?

Melissa Perry (07:22):

There is no doubt in my mind that this college can have a tremendous impact. Being the first college in the Commonwealth has been an ultimate honor, privilege, and important opportunity that we are pushing forward to be a leader in providing training, structured training and opportunities for folks in the Commonwealth and beyond that want to sign up for being part of a public health change in our region, in our state, in our nation, and in our world. I'm really excited about being able to convene leaders' expertise and also push forward and generate new knowledge in areas of research. I'm also super excited about how inclusive excellence across this university resonates so powerfully with our College of Public Health. The vast majority of our students, of our faculty, of our staff, they really care in making sure that we ensure health is a human right. And we ensure that everyone has access to health and well-being regardless of where you are in society, regardless of what zip code you live in. And I strongly believe that our College of Public Health is doing this and will continue to push forward with those values and with that mission.

Gregory Washington (08:39):

I love it. Healthcare is a right, and everybody deserves access. You know, that's so important in this day and time. You know, I don't have time to go through all of the programs in the college, but one

Gregory Washington (08:51):


Gregory Washington (08:52):

personifies exactly what you've just highlighted there is our Mason and Partners, our MAP clinics, and they provide healthcare to really vulnerable populations in the community. So talk to me about how that program fits into the broader college goals that you have.

Melissa Perry (09:11):

Yes. I have to share the story with you, Dr. Washington. When I was interviewing for this position, and I first learned about Mason and Partner clinics, I almost didn't believe it. What I came to understand was something that hearkened back to a period in my training in the early ‘90s where there was an active interest in people going into health, going into medicine, going into public health, going into nursing, really invested in responding to underserved communities, marginalized communities, and making sure that everyone had access to healthcare. And so, so many of those clinics have somehow disappeared, whereas George Mason has made sure that the Mason and Partner clinics are alive and well, thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of our incredible nurse leaders and our nurse, nursing students, and making sure that everyone, those folks that are the most invisible, the most marginalized, the most hard to reach, are getting access in Fairfax and also in Prince William County. We're super proud of the MAP clinics, and we wanna continue to advance and also ensure that they're as well integrated across the college as possible and also presenting great opportunities for our students across the university.

Gregory Washington (10:27):

It is a fantastic program, and it really does personify the campus. So what other research programs are at the College of Public Health that have you excited?

Melissa Perry (10:39):

We are having a great time in advancing our council on education and Public Health accreditation. This is a big deal for us. Launching this college has meant the support from Mason, the support of the commonwealth, the support of the community. And so now we're hard at work putting together our self-study so that the entire college will be accredited. We're really enjoying the opportunity to integrate nursing. We're very proud of our school of nursing, ensuring that nurses are learning from public health leaders and epidemiologists and health service experts are also learning from nursing. And then also social work. What a point of pride to have a department of social work within a College of public health. And we hear that from students and from faculty saying, this is unique, this is truly interdisciplinary, and this is exactly what we're looking for innovation in health services, provision of healthcare, and also in the prevention of disease.

Gregory Washington (11:36):

Outstanding. Outstanding. So let's talk a little bit about your personal connection to public health. How did you get into the field?

Melissa Perry (11:46):

I really appreciate the question, Dr. Washington. And actually, this goes way back, it goes way back to when I was, was young and growing up in rural Vermont. And in fact, that tiny town had very few, as I mentioned, economic opportunities. There was a lot of strife, a lot of mental and emotional strife. There was unemployment. There were many a single-parent families. There was quite a bit of alcohol abuse, tons of tobacco use, and other drugs. And at a point when I was quite young, right around 14, it was a very lonely time in my life. I was a lonely adolescent. My mom was working night and day at this, actually, it was a local watering hole. It was essentially a snack bar, but it was really a bar. That's how we're able to make some money by selling, uh, beer and wine. And she was working night and day.

Melissa Perry (12:40):

So I didn't have a supportive family or community of friends. I really didn't have anyone. And I reached a point of despair and I was at home alone and felt as though nothing would change, really had hit rock bottom in sadness and loneliness and despair. And so I found a bunch of pills. I didn't know what they were. I just knew at that moment that I didn't wanna continue. I didn't wanna continue living with this kind of pain. And so I took a bunch of pills. I didn't know what they were at the time. I just swallowed, um, I don't know, 50 or so pills. And I guess through tremendous grace, my brother found me. He came home and he found me. He called the ambulance. And the next thing I remember, I woke up in the intensive care unit in Burlington, Vermont. I had tubes everywhere, had no idea how they got there.

Melissa Perry (13:36):

And woke up to realize that three days had passed and I had been in a coma. I was absolutely terrified by what I had just done. I couldn't believe it. It was unfathomable what I had just attempted. At that moment I knew I didn't wanna die. I knew I wanted to live. And it was through the support of a lot of folks, the friends that I didn't know I had, I didn't feel like I had, teachers, mental health workers, guidance counselors. All of these people reached out to me and said to me, you really matter. We don't want to lose you. And I would say, looking back, that that was a transformative moment. That was the moment when I decided I really wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to address mental health crises. I wanted to address pain and suffering, and I wanted to get busy living.

Melissa Perry (14:28):

And I just wanted to tell you, Dr. Washington, that, um, this is the first time that I've actually shared this story publicly. And I did it for two reasons. One is that I really respect you and I really trust you, and I know how you and all of our people at George Mason really care about mental health, mental health crises, and people who may be experiencing suicidality or suicidal ideation. So I knew this was a safe place to talk about it. And then secondly, I hope that by sharing this message, if even one person hears this and feels as though this resonates with you, you have to know that there is another side. That it's common to believe that there's not. But you can get through whatever you're dealing with and push through. And there is support to get you through. And I guess my story is, is an example of that.

Gregory Washington (15:26):

Well, first and foremost, I, I'm humbled. I wanna say thank you for sharing. You never know what people are dealing with and what individuals who might be listening to this podcast are dealing with. So I am grateful for you sharing your story, that the story could have an impact on someone else. The reality is you have achieved tremendous heights since that time. You know, and look at where you are today. That's really kind of a message. It's a message of triumph, but it's also a message for people who may be in a point of despair right now. These things can turn around. You can end up at a great point in life. And also, I would say to those of you out here listening, if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or crisis, please reach out immediately to our suicide and crisis lifeline by calling or texting 988. You can also contact the crisis text line at 741-741. These services are all free and confidential. So with that as a backdrop of what you just highlighted to us, what were your thoughts when you read the report by the Centers for Disease Control that said, nearly 57% of teen girls in the US felt persistently sad or hopeless, double that of boys, and 30% of teen girls seriously considered suicide.

Melissa Perry (16:56):

It was incredibly distressing. My first reaction was distressed. The second reaction was, I identify, the third reaction was, I really need to talk about my own experience as a way of reaching out, as a way of affirming what it's like to be in that space as a, as adolescent girl feeling hopeless. I'm really concerned as an epidemiologist and as a public health leader, that we have seen such a tremendous increase in the sense of loneliness and despair and hopelessness. I feel strongly that despite the many, many advances that we've experienced with technology, we're also experiencing a epidemic of loneliness. Mm. In a very paradoxical way. I anchor back to just about 16 years ago, 2007, when the smartphone arrived. And before you know it, we all had this small glass rectangle in our hands. And by its very nature, we start to tune others out.

Melissa Perry (17:59):

There's an important quote that I've used before, and that is behind any type of machine, whether or not it's a gun, a car, or a computer, we are at risk of losing a piece of our humanity. And so as we find ourselves communing at the screen, I think we're disconnecting inadvertently, unconsciously, unintentionally from each other. And so to have such a massive number of teen girls throughout the US experiencing, uh, loneliness and despair tells me that it's critically important to rally support, to turn toward each other, to continuously recognize how much our teens need us as adults, as community members, as friends, as leaders, as parents, as teachers, as educators, and really recognize the critical importance of shared humanity and being present for each other.

Gregory Washington (18:55):

Look, you, you <laugh>, I don't know if you meant for this to be a class, but you're indeed teaching today. You know, a year or so ago, we did a podcast with Robyn Mehlenbeck, and I don't know if you know, uh, Robyn.

Melissa Perry (19:08):

Yes. I've interacted with Robin for sure. I really admire her leadership at the university.

Gregory Washington1 (19:12):

Yeah. So she heads our Center for Psychological Services and one of the things she said, it stuck with me, and it was, she said, A mental health crisis on the heels of Covid would actually be the country's second pandemic. What do you think about that? And is this all tied together?

Melissa Perry (19:31):

I think that's a very powerful, very insightful statement I wanted to share with you. I thought you’d enjoy hearing that yesterday, I was over in Arlington at the Carter School and we had this great symposium on the many contributions that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have made to the world. And so I convened a fireside chat with a colleague of mine, Eliot Sorel, who's a very well-known public mental health, global health psychiatrist. And we talked about the way in which the Carters were grappling with mental health issues in the 1980s. What were the issues then? It was partly ensuring that people were coming out of mental hospitals. It was destigmatizing mental health issues. It was funding research so we could better understand how common these issues were. So we had a very robust conversation. So that's the 1980s. And I mentioned it to say that as a country we've grappled, we grappled with mental health issues. I find that now in the two thousands, 2020s, we are being more open about these conversations. We're also seeing that, for example, pre-COVID, the probability that someone in the US would be experiencing some mental health crisis in their lifetime was around 25%. And that as we are coming out of Covid, the probability that someone 70 or younger might experience some type of mental health crisis has increased to one in two or 50%.

Gregory Washington (21:07):


Melissa Perry (21:08):

So these are very, very real issues. I felt strongly that the extreme isolation that so many millions of people went through during Covid certainly exacerbated mental health issues. The continuous bad news that we all had to consume on a daily basis also exacerbated mental health distress. And I honestly believe, and in some ways the Carter's reinforce this in their notion of community matters. The connections that we have in our lives and how we cultivate them and the way that we seek them out has a tremendous impact on navigating the hardships and the battles that each of us has to navigate on a daily basis.

Gregory Washington (21:50):

I guess kind of all of this seems like it's kind of converging here, right? If you have, the Virginia Department of Health reported that from 2019 to 2020, Virginia saw a 17% increase in overdose deaths. Then in 2021, 37% of adults in Virginia reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. And yet we have 22% of the folk in our population who are unable to get counseling or therapy. When you start to pull all of this together, is this the triple health crisis in Virginia that you were speaking of?

Melissa Perry (22:23):

I think that is very, uh, much how it's manifesting. I think these are very, very, uh, real and pressing and alarming problems. And at the same time, I believe that we can develop solutions. We are developing solutions. I think the awareness, public awareness is absolutely essential. I think unpacking what we're looking at in terms of the healthcare crisis and having enough providers, it partly stems from pushing systems beyond their capacity. And that includes all of the healthcare workers who were pushed far beyond what they could actually handle during Covid. And recognizing that we have to, in many ways make sense and harmonize how we deliver healthcare, how we access populations, and how we support our healthcare providers, our nurses and other health workers, so that they can have a semblance of calm and sanity and harmony in the work that they do and they're so passionate about. Healthcare workers are talking about not as much pay as they're talking about shortages that really compromise their ability to deliver quality care.

Melissa Perry (23:36):

They care about their patients and they can't deliver it. When it comes to the opioid crisis, goodness gracious, who could imagine how lethal our current class of opioids has become? Who could imagine that? We've been contending with drugs as a country for decades now, but we are in a place where these drugs that are currently being used, fentanyl and other drugs are so lethal that it really takes one use to end a life. So I believe a public health approach, a public mental health approach, a population approach to the provision of health, health as a human right, and also health provision as a common good that we all must invest in and believe in and be connected to, is really the answer to this multiple epidemics or what's been referred to as a syndemic of various health crises in the country.

Gregory Washington (24:29):

So why are we stuck in a deficit of this availability of care? It goes well beyond having an adequate number of staff people to deal with it. Why are we stuck?

Melissa Perry (24:40):

Again, I like to anchor back to the early ‘90s when we had very, uh, vigorous conversations as a society and certainly among public health leaders about this notion that healthcare should not be treated as a commodity. It shouldn't be only left to the market to see how it lands. In fact, we have to covet the provision of healthcare to ensure that everyone gets access to quality care rather than just those that can afford it, or just those that can navigate an extremely complicated system. Let's face it, we all recognize that it's getting more and more complicated. I think recent data I've read is that at least 27 million Americans are carrying some type of health-related debt. How did we get there? How did we use healthcare and convert it into a commodity? And with a business mindset when in fact, as a society, we recognize it's critically important that everyone remain healthy and get access to the care that they so deserve.

Gregory Washington (25:45):

So you're a big proponent of virtual reality as a healthcare tool. And in order to tackle a problem like this, we need scale, right? More people need to get access to services and care. So how can VR help in these types of situations?

Melissa Perry (26:02):

Uh, that's a great topic, and you're absolutely right. I think about things in terms of populations. Thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people. That's how I envision how a disease might travel through a population. That tells you so much about the disease, about who's being affected and also what's causing that disease, and what are the factors that are hastening the transmission or the conditions of the disease. To be honest, I like to say that I'm a bit of a digital migrant, and that is that I essentially trained without a lot of technology. I think I typed my, certainly my undergraduate papers on an electric typewriter. So I've never been an early adopter of technology, but when I came to Mason and put on a virtual reality headset for the first time, it was a huge aha moment. It was, okay. So I think cynically, when I heard about VR, I thought, so we're retreating into the virtual world, uh, because we can't solve problems in the real world?

Melissa Perry (27:03):

I think that was my misguided notion. But once I experienced VR, I realized, oh, this is such a powerful way to immerse our students in real-world situations. So sure, you can do role-playing in the classroom, but how about having immersive situations where you really feel like you're there either treating a patient or how about dealing with a person who might be in a mental health crisis? You don't want to be exposed to that for the first time when you're in the middle of it. You really want to, um, have preparation. You wanna have a simulation. So I'm super excited by the many skills and the many creative exposures we can give our students to best prepare them to go out into the world and know how are they going to treat their first patient, or how are they going to navigate, let's say, the new unknown epidemic or a new chemical exposure? We can write scenarios. We can write cases that will have students work through all of those issues and be well-prepared when they graduate.

Gregory Washington (28:10):

That's interesting. 'cause you, you and I aren't too far apart in age. And I remember back when I worked on my dissertation, it was on an Apple, a Macintosh machine. So you were, uh, somewhat of a slow adopter early.

Melissa Perry (28:26):

I was, I was. So just for a correction. So I was doing my undergrad papers on the typewriter I remember at UVM, but for my master's and doctoral work, it was this Gateway computer that came in a Holstein cow-type black and white box. And that I had to assemble. And then it had a MsDos prompt, so I remember that as well.

Gregory Washington (28:49):

Understood. So can't talk these days about the future without talking about artificial intelligence. It's interesting. We're not discussing enough how it can be linked to public health, right? We hear a lot about it with physical health, and we actually hear now about mental health. So where do you see the intersection with AI in public health?

Melissa Perry (29:15):

I think my years of being, not necessarily, I'd say a late adopter, not a laggard or a Luddite, but maybe a late adopter. I think I'm over that because I've recognized that it hasn't, uh, suited me well. So I would put myself in an early adopter space. When it comes to AI, I feel a lot of optimism. I feel worry for sure. I share the many worries that so many folks have put forward. And perhaps we're in what you could call a hype cycle where we're overreacting to what AI has to offer. With that said, similar to virtual reality, these machine learning technologies can push us further. And we've seen head-spinning demonstrations of how AI can come up with the detection of disease, can come up with new diagnoses that currently weren't understood. So I think we need to poke and prod as judiciously and responsibly as possible, and at the same time, not be fearful. We have to recognize that whatever we may be teaching in public health right now may quickly become outmoded. But that means that embracing these technologies and really preparing our students for the next generation where they can harness it, where they can have these powerful curated tools to support them, to envision. I think there are different minds for the future. And I think the humanitarian mind, the ethical mind, the synthesizing mind, the moral mind, those are areas of teaching and educating that we can continue to do. And no machine system is going to change that.

Gregory Washington (30:54):

Right, to a certain extent. But what I will tell you, I believe that AI affords an opportunity. You're looking at data and you're looking at large amounts of data relative to measurements or outcomes relative to public health for communities, right? And AI has the ability to see patterns and data that we may not catch early enough. And so I think that there may be something there in that regard. I think there may be some benefits there that will help in the public health space.

Melissa Perry (31:28):

I completely agree. I think you're absolutely right. The ability to process massive amounts of data and to be able to see patterns and signals amidst reams of data that it's not humanly possible to process. I think that will really catapult us forward. And again, we're seeing that even in the diagnostic space, right?

Gregory Washington (31:48):

I think epidemiologists are gonna be using these tools probably akin to how they use a basic computer today. I honestly believe the tools are gonna be that helpful.

Melissa Perry (31:58):

I agree with you. I don't think that's farfetched at all. And I do have a posture of receptivity and excitement about the future and really wanna make sure that we are as proactive as possible in understanding how best to harness this and how to teach these opportunities of AI usage for our students so they can be really in the driver's seat and they can come up with new applications, which I think are proliferating all the time. So the ability to power through massive amounts of data to detect, again, new risk factors, new signals, and new causes of disease, I remain very optimistic about.

Gregory Washington (32:36):

Well, then you kind of answered my next question for me, because this whole Center of Disease Control report that came out in March basically states that AI is poised to transform the practice of medicine and the delivery of healthcare. I would assume that you would wholeheartedly agree with that.

Melissa Perry (32:53):

I agree with that, and I think that's the kind of open-mindedness that we need to be approaching, the power of AI. And at the same time, understand, getting back to my point about ensuring that we remain very focused on access and equity, making sure that we don't create further digital divides by whatever strategies we're using AI for. We wanna make sure that our advancements and our improvements are going to benefit population health, not just privileged populations or those that are inclined to navigate sophisticated systems. We really wanna make it as accessible and parsimonious and level the playing field for everyone in our society.

Gregory Washington (33:38):

So prior to coming to Mason, you completed a one-year sabbatical in Albania as part of the Fulbright International Education Program for Global Scholars. One thing you found in your interactions with people in that population is that one of the usual greetings between people is, are you tired?

Melissa Perry (33:58):

Yes, that's exactly right.

Gregory Washington (33:59):

What did that tell you about the state of public health, not necessarily in Albania, everywhere as we deal with the physical and mental stress of the pandemic and its aftermath relative to these other factors we discussed?

Melissa Perry (34:13):

I think it was very poignant. Yes. I really had an insight to that when I was in Albania. It's true in the Albanian language, one of the greetings, the first greeting is how are you? To which everyone always responds fine. And then the next is, are you tired? To which people usually say yes, I'm kind of tired. And so it has been a true reflection of the population burden of the stress and strain of what we've been through. At the same time, again, I have to harken back to 2007. I, on a personal basis, feel as though the cognitive complexity and the digital overload that I find myself immersed in and living every day. I think that also can be beleaguering. I think it can be somewhat isolating and overwhelming that our poor brains are trying to keep up with machines, even simply our smartphones as though we can process information like we’re machines, when in fact we're not.

Melissa Perry (35:12):

So there's a fatigue factor there. And as I said at the moment, in March of 2020, when so many universities sent everybody home, I just thought, again, being in that isolated place at home, for those that had the privilege of being at home, because there were hundreds of thousands of essential workers that didn't, they were having to show up for work on the front lines every day. But for those people who were at home, only able to get information from their computer, didn't have the ability to be in their natural settings. And that's among other people, I think our brains are wired to need that. And then consuming constant bad news, that was a very beleaguering and exhausting time. And I think we're still working hard to come out of it to return to a sense of normalcy. In reality, I don't think we'll ever be the same as we were pre-COVID because we learned profound lessons about pathogens, infectious diseases, and the ability for new pathogens to change and to mutate to create the next pandemic. So it's not a matter of will there be another pandemic. Unfortunately, the answer is yes, it's a matter of when.

Melissa Perry (36:33):

But there's so much that we as a society can learn. I say that these have to be lessons learned, not just lessons observed as to what happened. Why did we find ourselves so unprepared, and what can we do going forward? For me, as a dean of a college of public health, it is training the next generation.

Gregory Washington (36:53):

I agree a hundred percent. You know, The Washington Post reported that since 20, 20, 30 states have passed laws that limit public health authorities. Given what we were talking about, given what we know, <laugh>, since the pandemic hit, what do you see as the consequence of such an action? Why would they do this, by the way?

Melissa Perry (37:17):

Oh boy. Yes, absolutely. You've raised a really serious topic, a really important topic, and an opportunity to learn a ton. Again, lessons to learn rather than to just observe. So in the early days of the pandemic, fellow colleagues from the American Public Health Association published this really eye-opening report where they demonstrated that over the past 25 years, we as a country had lost 250,000 public health jobs. It was a staggering number. It was as though, as I mentioned, training in epidemiology and public health at Johns Hopkins in the early ‘90s. I felt surrounded by cadres of public health leaders. Many were going into the epidemiologic intelligence service. They were being trained to be on the front lines during crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. And when it hit in 2020, we were woefully unprepared. We didn't have those workers. We hadn't invested in the public health infrastructure.

Melissa Perry (38:19):

We had uninvested. And also data. Data is an epidemiologist's bread and butter, just as we were talking about with AI. You need good data, timely data, accurate data, and thorough data in order to understand what's going on. And what we found during the pandemic is that we didn't have it. We didn't have the systems, and a lot of conflicting forces were trying to shield the data or hold onto it and not release it. So what you're just talking about these laws about data usage is part of it. It's the last direction we wanna go in. In fact, I would say data needs to be a public possession. It needs to be made in the public domain to better inform how we prevent disease, how we treat, how we respond, how do we mitigate for all the members of our society. So the last thing we should be doing is disinvesting in public health. COVID did make words like pandemic, epidemiology, and concepts such as infectious disease or disease rate or transmission. Those became household words.

Gregory Washington (39:22):

Exactly. That's one of the silver linings in this whole thing.

Melissa Perry (39:26):

Absolutely. And that was a clarion call. It was an opportunity for public health to rise to the occasion. I think what we can't allow to happen is that we slip back into complacency because we're not in crisis mode. And that, again, we learn valuable lessons for next time versus just observing them.

Gregory Washington (39:44):

So in a perfect world, what would be your definition of public health?

Melissa Perry (39:48):

My definition would be the opportunity for health, well-being and happiness for all. Simply put,

Gregory Washington (39:57):

Outstanding. Outstanding. Well, I can say we can't wait to see the results of the work that you are doing, your vision for our College of Public Health and where it's going and the work in your individual lab. I kept a lab going when I was a dean. What was that term you said in Albania? Are you tired?

Melissa Perry (40:17):

Are you tired? <laugh>. <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (40:21):

I did that. I kept a fairly large group of graduate students going during that time. And I could tell you it was tiring, but it was quite fulfilling. I really got a lot out of it personally. And my students, I was able to do right by them too. So I feel good about that time in my life. Any last parting words?

Melissa Perry (40:40):

Absolutely. I just need to gush a little bit because since coming to Mason, it's been really a lot of fun. I'm having a really great time here. I feel very, very affirmed and I feel very comfortable. And so I've been heard to say, this will make you a little bit embarrassed. But as I'm talking about our president, I say, Dr. Washington embodies the values and the vision and the empathy that we all really are inspired by. And I say that I will follow that guy anywhere, <laugh>. So I'm experiencing a lot of gratitude for Mason, for the way in which I've been welcomed here for the support and excitement about public health, and just delighted to be part of this world-class university.

Gregory Washington (41:25):

I appreciate that, and I look forward to working with you as we move forward in this journey together.

Melissa Perry (41:31):

I'm really looking forward to that too.

Gregory Washington (41:33):

Well, that's going to wrap things up here at Access to Excellence. I'd like to thank Melissa Perry, the dean of the College of Public Health. I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe, Mason Nation.

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students, graduates, and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.

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