Black Mental Health Care in the Age of the Coronavirus

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there’s likely been no other time in recent history when caring for one’s mental health has been so crucial. One of the most acutely impacted demographics during this time? Black women.

Thankfully, black female leaders are recognizing this overarching problem and how it can be exasperated during the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re doing something about it. Most recently, actress and philanthropist Taraji P. Henson launched a COVID-19-related free virtual therapy initiative through her nonprofit organization, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation.

Photo: The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, Instagram

The Foundation aims to eradicate stigma surrounding African-American mental health issues and provide support and awareness to the same community. Founded in 2018 and named after Henson’s father, the foundation recognizes the African-American community is the least likely population to seek mental health treatment, even though one in five of all Americans, regardless of race, suffer from mental illness. The foundation points to fears of being labeled as weak or inadequate and a need to appear strong and capable as one of the reasons why mental health care is not sought out on a wider basis.

The COVID-19 free virtual therapy initiative is easily located on the foundation’s resources page. All one has to do is apply for services and then choose a clinician and participating COVID-19 support provider in their state.

Unfortunately, the free services are being offered in “rounds” and the first round has been closed, with the second round opening at an undisclosed date. The foundation urges those interested to keep an eye on the website for updates. Those with the means can make donations to the cause (as the initiative is paying licensed and culturally competent clinicians for their provided services).

“It’s our priority to provide care to those in need, who do not have accessibility or the ability to afford culturally competent therapists. We also need to remove the stigma around mental illness. It’s OK not to be OK,” Tracie Jade Jenkins, executive director at the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, said shortly after the initiative was announced, in an article published by Black Enterprise.

Henson has long advocated for the destigmatization of mental illness in the black community. (Photo: Public Domain)

“They are told to be strong and tough it out and told that you’re weak if you have issues,” Henson also said, separately, to The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re all human. We’re all in this thing called life together, and it is tough. We’re not afraid to talk about having a root canal or there’s no shame in having a thyroid issue or even cancer. Why can’t we talk about mental health in the same way?”

While Henson’s quote above referenced black men, the same can be said regarding black women.

According to an article from John Hopkins Medicine, women are twice as likely to experience major depression as men, but black women are only half as likely as white women to seek professional mental health care help.

“Too often, women of color try to muscle their way through depression and anxiety on their own,” says chair and medical director of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Sibley Memorial Hospital, Erica Richards, in the same article.

“We…are conditioned to soldier through and roll with the punches of life,” adds Crista Glover, PhD, LPC.

Additionally, if a black woman does try to seek mental health care services, she may quickly become deterred.

“Culturally, African-Americans are among the top race who prefer to have a clinician who looks like them. The inability for individuals to find providers who fit their preferences can cause them to give up on therapy in general,” says Candace Carter, LPC.

Whoever the impacted individual may be, however, now’s the time to seek mental health care.

“I view the coronavirus [pandemic] as a giant pressure cooker. It has turned up the heat and is testing the limits of an already precarious situation by shining a light on health disparities that were already in place. Individuals who have historically struggled to access quality care to address their mental health concerns must now compete for space with individuals who are newly entering the system because the pandemic has pushed them to their breaking point. The system, pre-coronavirus, was not prepared to handle the massive influx of clients we are seeing with trauma, depression and anxiety-related symptoms,” said Martina Efodzi from Aya Healing Arts, LLC, in a recent interview with The Femtourage.

Danielle Jones, founder and CEO of Love LLC, agrees: “I have had an increase in clients since the coronavirus pandemic started. There are more people recognizing that they…need extra assistance… From my clients and interactions with friends, family and coworkers, it seems to be increased anxiety across the board. Everyone is attempting to learn to adjust in the best way possible for themselves.”

You can find more information regarding the resources offered by the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation on the foundation’s website.