Black Mental Health in the Midst of COVID-19
Updated: May 29, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in rising death tolls all across the globe, but not all of those deaths are a direct result of an individual being infected by the virus. In some instances, just the pandemic’s mere existence plays a role in related deaths. Mental health issues are exasperated, resulting in suicides, like that of Jo’Vianni “Jo” Smith, a Stockton teen who was found dead following stress caused by coronavirus lockdowns. In some instances, when mental health issues are exasperated, others take the fall, with domestic abuse and child abuse cases rising, which can also result in death. And this isn’t an issue that will go away when the pandemic wanes; experts predict COVID’s toll on mental health will last for years to come.
It’s only expected, then, that populations that feel disparities in the mental health care realm on a normal basis would now see those disparities exasperated.
“Unfortunately, racial disparities are quite frequent in many phases of mental health,” explains Bryan Sackey, founder and CEO of Pharmacy Initiative Leaders, Inc. “There is good research to show that African Americans are more likely to be misdiagnosed which often leads to mismanagement of their true conditions. One research shows blacks are more likely to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, which then leads to prescription of antipsychotics and these agents may unfortunately worsen pre-existing metabolic issues (i.e. diabetes). Additionally, cultural misunderstanding of the black population may lead to under or over-treatment by providers in this community.”
Sackey says, since the coronavirus pandemic began, he has noticed an uptick of anxiety and panic attacks in his patient population, but across all patient groups, regardless of race or age. But, he admits, his black patients have been exhibiting a different trend.
“I have not noticed a particular distinction based on race,” he says. “However, I have seen more of my black patients cancelling their appointments (despite being conducted via video). I presume this is related to a common issue I often see in the black population: internalizing pain and opting to solve problems on their own rather than pursuing professional help. I believe we as a black community tend to go into survival mode during times of uncertainty and neglect very key aspects of wellbeing to include mental health. I hope to educate and help ameliorate this issue in our population.”
Other providers, however, say they’ve seen increases in mental health issues and disparities among black female patients specifically.
“I am definitely seeing an increase in anxiety and depression-related symptoms among the black womyn that I work with in therapy,” says Martina Efodzi, of Aya Healing Arts, LLC. “Mounting pressures at work and at home [and] limited access to traditional coping methods such as friends, the gym and places of worship have made the isolation that comes with being quarantined even more acute.”
“From my current experience outside what has been reported, low income minorities are definitely impacted more,” adds Imani Hines, LPC, regarding the way demographics are possibly impacted more acutely or uniquely by the coronavirus pandemic. This, she says, is “due to a lack of resources and struggling with financial concerns prior to the pandemic.”
Some mental health care professionals also point out that the coronavirus pandemic has made disparities across the board more obvious, beyond mental health care. Crista Glover, PhD, LPC, says she hasn’t necessarily seen a more acute impact on certain demographics’ mental health over others’ during the pandemic, “but that could be because we (I identify as a black woman) are conditioned to soldier through and roll with the punches of life. What I’ve seen is many more layered dynamics than just managing the public health crisis. These shelter-in-place requirements, while necessary, are also revealing how some home environments truly aren’t safe. There could be family dysfunction or even domestic violence dynamics that make home psychologically unsafe. Also, if there are pre-existing health conditions, then coronavirus is very threatening to the black community and not something that you can readily ‘bounce back from’ if diagnosed. It really comes down to the difference of being merely inconvenienced by this global crisis or it being truly a matter of life and death. This pandemic has highlighted the disparities that have always existed. Now, it’s just more obvious.”
Regardless of how black mental health care professionals are seeing coronavirus pandemic-related stress and anxiety manifest among their patient populations, all the providers that we spoke to are taking a proactive approach to assisting their patients during an uncertain and very difficult time, pre-existing mental health condition or not.
“I am attempting to be more available for my clients when they are in crisis. Also, I am allowing them to deviate from their treatment plans to discuss more about the pandemic and how it is affecting them. I have also been assisting my clients with finding resources for their situations and making sure to share information as I receive it that may help them during this time,” explains Danielle Jones, founder and CEO, LOVE, LLC. Jones says she’s seen an increase in clients since the pandemic started, with more individuals recognizing how they might need extra assistance with their mental health.
“What I’m doing as a mental health professional during this time is offering support as well as tips to people who are struggling with managing their stress and anxiety levels,” says Candace Carter, LPC. “This support can look different for different people, but it could be offering a listening ear, referring a friend or coworker to their own therapy [or] offering support group resources. I’ve also created a COVID-19 action plan to help people create a personalized strategy to manage their stress and anxiety levels. It’s important to remember that although things may seem chaotic right now, there are steps you can take to lighten the negative impact and help you focus on what you can control.”
If you’re currently suffering with your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, the mental health care professionals we spoke with offer some advice.
“My clients and I frequently discuss the difference between ‘being alone’ and ‘being lonely’ and how technology and creativity might open up new possibilities. I have also found myself encouraging these clients to remember that, as descendants of enslaved people, we have a history of resilience that enables us to breathe life into captive spaces. What lessons can we pull forward from our ancestral traditions that would allow us to dream, plan, grow and thrive in spite of the limitations placed on our freedom of movement? Whatever those lessons are, we need to embrace the spirit of ‘sankofa’ and ‘go back and fetch it!’” explains Efodzi.
“I am encouraging my clients and community to feel all the feelings. We cannot change what we are unwilling to face, so getting honest about how we are processing this experience is the first step towards healing. Second, I encourage my clients and community to acknowledge that what we are all going through is traumatic and should be viewed from the lenses of trauma, grief and loss. Many of us are just trying to get through the day without breaking down. In speaking with my clients this week, we discussed how important it is to give yourself permission to rest, to grieve and to mourn. No one expected that 2020 would roll out the way that it has, or that our relationships, institutions, rituals and routines would be tested in this way. In times like these, I invite folks to have a ‘mini funeral’ for their shattered expectations and focus on the present moment,” she adds.