What with the rarefied rage COVID-19 has unleashed against black bodies, the pandemic-fueled job losses, the run of unarmed Black persons slain by police, the subsequent protests, and America’s persistent problems with race, Black people have been overloaded with bad news and uncertainty in these reckoning times. As a result, mental health issues are surfacing at alarming rates in Black communities.
Sarah Vinson, M.D., a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine and an adjunct instructor at Emory University, both in Atlanta, GA, says she’s seeing a worsening of symptoms among her patients. “Those with a history of depression have seen their depression surge and some of my patients have had a resurgence of suicidal thoughts,” she says. “Part of my work has been helping them understand their symptoms in the context of what’s happening now, but also in the context of our entire history in this country. I’m letting them know we’re enduring an unprecedented amount of stress. But we’ve always had these structural, systemic stresses.”
Getting through these times with our wits intact, adds Vinson, demands that we “give each other grace and pick our battles, and give our own, individual selves grace, too.” Which is precisely what Drew Giddings, a North Plainfield, NJ, strategist for nonprofit and philanthropic executives, is doing. He had been navigating the pandemic reasonably well by heeding social distancing, limiting his trips to essential spots like the grocery store, working from home, and enjoying needed backyard and other recreational time with his husband and 9-year-old son. But the George Floyd killing was a tipping point. “All of a sudden, it felt like we’re up against a pandemic within a pandemic,” says Giddings.
As a strategist, Giddings’ portfolio includes projects aimed at determining how to best deploy money and other resources against problems related to race relations and Black health, so he wasn’t surprised that his clients were understanding when he informed them the day after Floyd’s death that he was taking some unscheduled days off from work. But what has startled him is how difficult he’s found it to cope. “I wouldn't have thought I'd be struggling through this moment so hard,” Giddings adds. “As a Black man, I needed to take some time apart to mourn, grieve, be angry, and reflect.”
Mental Health Hurdles Facing the Black Community
While pausing to reflect and recharge can help some, others could benefit from consulting with a mental health professional. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites. But, for many, getting that help can prove to be a task. There’s the cost, which insurance doesn’t always cover. “Some people’s only option may be the [government-subsidized] county clinic with a three-month waitlist or seeing a private practice psychiatrist, for $300 an hour, and handing over your credit card to pay for it,” says Vinson, who also runs the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Program at Morehouse School of Medicine.
But there’s also the matter of finding a therapist who is the right fit. For many Black patients, that means one who aligns with them culturally, which can be especially difficult. Just 4 percent of the nation’s psychologists are Black, according to American Psychological Association’s most recent report, while it’s been estimated that roughly 2 percent of psychiatrists are Black. “We have somewhere between 2,000 and 2,200 Black psychiatrists in this country,” says Patricia A. Newton, M.D., CEO and medical director of Black Psychiatrists of America. “That’s virtually nothing. And the need is very great.”
Layered atop those barriers is the hard fact that many Blacks harbor long-held stigmas against seeking mental health care. This stigma can take the form of believing that therapy is for others and Black people need only to dig deep into a well of resilience and strength, built up since slavery, to overcome “sadness” and “stress”—what other groups know as depression and anxiety.
But rather than dismiss these stigmas, Vinson reminds that they result from real trauma. Still at the forefront of many Black minds is the history, for example, of the 40-year Tuskegee Institute experiment, studying but not treating syphilis in Black men. “A lot of times in our well-meaning cultural competency seminars they’ll say things, like, ‘Blacks have a distrust of mental health services,’ without acknowledgment that Black people have been traumatized by every American institution since we were brought here as slaves. It’s not just cultural mistrust, it’s a logical reaction to living in this system as Black people,” Vinson says.
Ultimately, the way to destigmatize mental health care is to frame it as a means of regaining control, says Adam Meadows, M.D., an Atlanta-based psychiatrist. “How can we move from victimization to empowerment? On a micro level, empowerment involves choice, and controlling what you can control. ‘I am empowered to direct where this discussion and this work go.’ Proactivity becomes a form of therapy.”
Filling the Mental Healthcare Gap
Fortunately, many Black practitioners are stepping up. The therapy that Bravada Garrett-Akinsanya,Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis, dispenses to the mainly Black adults and children on her roster of patients at the African American Wellness Institute, which she directs, is Afrocentric. It holds that a collective of people, pooling talents and resources, fare better than solo individuals. It spotlights, nevertheless, aspects of mental health self-care that are intensely private.
Garrett-Akinsanya’s institute is framed around “wellness” of the whole community. It’s her way of circumventing stigmas that wrongly equate getting mental and behavioral health care with human weakness. By leaning into the idea of collective solutions for community problems, the emphasis is placed on mental health wellness as an act of resilience, which can help sidestep cultural stigmas. “For example, with coronavirus, I had some very worried women clients—parents with children in the same school and the same grade—so I encouraged them to connect,” says Garrett-Akinsanya. “Some were good at math, some at English…With their children out of school, they took turns teaching. If you have this model in your head, of creatively overcoming obstacles, you see where your strengths lie, you see resilience.”
Deciding What’s Best for You Right Now
Frieda Wiley could only watch the video of George Floyd’s last moments once. “I’m a highly sensitive person and I shouldn’t have ever watched that video,” says Wiley. Afterward, she switched off social media—she gets her news there and doesn’t have a TV—to avoid the constant replaying and angst-ridden conversations around police slayings. “They talk about the epigenetics of this, and how we carry the trauma of our ancestors in our DNA. I think there is some truth in that,” she says.
In the days since Floyd’s murder, she scheduled a first-ever appointment with a therapist. She’s doing more yoga and meditation. “I’m also just really focused on the black unity I’m seeing right now, and trying to figure out how I can help,” she says.
Fortifying herself mentally is a first step, she says, toward helping anyone else in these painful, mind-bending times.
If you need help, there are several organizations that offer culturally sensitive assistance:
- The American Psychiatric Association, Association of Black Psychologists, Black Mental Health Alliance, Black Psychiatrists of America , Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, Therapy for Black Girls and Therapy for Black Men (that men’s group is offering free therapy right now) are among organizations maintaining lists of clinicians and providing other useful information. Amid the current pandemic and protests, several of them have been streaming on Facebook Live and YouTube.
- Many Black churches have no-cost counseling ministries run by professionally trained and certified volunteer clinicians.
- Each state is federally mandated to establish and maintain safety-net mental health service agencies, overseen and listed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Some local chapters of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, which appointed an African American as its executive director in 2019, run support groups and provide educational tools for a diversity of communities.
Illustrations by Bria Benjamin
Originally published on Happify Daily