Social distancing and social isolation are fast becoming a way of life, and as a result many individuals are struggling to find balance in roles that have required them to work from home or live separately from routines and rituals. While some African Americans are less likely to seek out mental health services due to historic mistrust of healthcare professionals, among other factors, COVID-19 has brought to light the importance of mental health and its essential function to collective well-being.
Renita Wilson, clinical director for the Kente Circle, a mental health agency located in South Minneapolis, believes that COVID-19 has disrupted the emotional equilibrium of African Americans from a variety of angles, but she stressed the importance of seeking out resources.
“It is extremely important for our people to seek out mental health resources during COVID,” said Wilson.
“Because COVID’s protective guidelines require some form of disconnect and isolation, the impact it has on our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being is really under attack when aligned with stress that may be caused by families losing jobs. There’s also an extreme fear of the unknown, so it makes it very important to seek out mental health support and resources during this time.”
“One tip for managing anxiety during this time is to continue to operate on some sort of schedule…”
Dr. Brownell Mack, director of clinical services for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit community organization located in St. Paul, suggests that while feelings of isolation and depression may be commonplace, human connection could help in alleviating some of the burden.
“What we are seeing during this crisis are people coming together and galvanizing both as a community and at the individual family unit as well. We know historically that kinship, bonds, and closeness to family and friends and the broader community has always been protective of us. I think people are recognizing just how important those connections are in this kind of crisis.”
Wilson adds that the rise of virtual parties and online happy hours have contributed by providing social connections in the midst of COVID-19. Still, discussions about mental health in the Black community comes with its share of challenges.
COVID-19’s level of uncertainty has caused agencies to respond to the needs of both their clients and the community at large. To make themselves accessible, both the Kente Circle and Wilder Foundation are offering telehealth services, which provide mental health support through various forms of technology, including the telephone or cellphone.
At the state level, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services has invested resources in agencies that support underserved communities. Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, who serves as assistant commissioner for the community supports administration in the Department of Human Services (DHS), emphasized this point but mentioned the comprehensive oversight they are providing.
“At the State level we generally do not offer mental health services. However, what we are doing is working with key partners such as counties and agencies to provide funding, guidance, oversight, plus technical assistance, “said Matemba-Mutasa.
“We also continue to focus on equity by prioritizing communities that are underserved. That’s really our role at DHS, to serve the people who need the support, which is by definition who we are.”
State support aside, COVID-19 and mental health remain a complex and multi-faceted issue for those supporting underrepresented communities. “What COVID-19 has taught us is that we need to look beyond workers and the economy,” said Cynthia Fashaw, director of children’s programs and multicultural outreach with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota affiliate.
“It’s taught us that African Americans are dying at a much higher rate than our percentage in the population, so it’s affecting us disproportionately. This also gives us a sense of urgency. Our agenda, lives and livelihood may not be well addressed in the way it needs to be if we [African Americans] are not the carriers of the message.”
With the severity of COVID 19 and the stress associated with being Black in America, mental health may continue to be an afterthought for those suffering in silence. Taking this into account, each practitioner and advocate is mindful of the barriers that impede mental health discussion but is quick to convey messages of hope and tips to those experiencing anxiety.
“Despite everything that’s going on,” said Wilson, “one tip for managing anxiety during this time is to continue to operate on some sort of schedule. This means getting up every day and doing some of the same things that we would normally do to keep us moving forward.”
Wilson added it may be equally helpful to limit television and social media intake. The latter promotes an unhealthy pressure for people to increase their productivity during social isolation.
“Social media, I feel, has its unfortunate place where folks are feeling like they have to live up to what they perceive to be the expectations of others. Whether it’s Facebook or Instagram, people are readily giving their opinions, thoughts and ideas on how they feel others should spend their time, so we have to be mindful on how we take these messages and internalize them as our truth.”
When asked about the message that State officials would like to communicate directly to the Black community during COVID 19, Matemba-Mutasa reinforced their commitment to serve and support. “At the State, we are very committed to making sure everybody who needs mental health services and support is able to receive it.
“We also want everyone in the African American community to know that we care, and that we are working furiously to serve them. We’re also open to feedback and ideas, because everything we do is driven by the community.”
Kente Circle is located at 345 East 38th Street South in Minneapolis. Call 612-243-1600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is located at 451 Lexington Parkway North in St. Paul. Because of COVID-19 in Minnesota, they are suspending in-person appointments and visits. They will continue to provide mental and chemical health services via phone and video (telehealth). Call 651-280-2310 for more information.