Blacks, mental health and COVID


Mental health issues in the Black community pre-COVID-19 always existed, but the coronavirus pandemic has created an even more fragile situation for many reasons. 

Blacks historically have been impacted by adversity, racism and various socioeconomic disparities. Adult Blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than adult Whites. Black men not seeking mental health help often do so because of the fear of being stigmatized or being seen as crazy by family and friends.

COVID-19 this year also produced “new” trauma such as uncertainty, isolation, and grief for financial loss or loss of a loved one or friend. Blacks “were dramatically less likely than the general population to seek out mental health treatment,” Black Mental Health Alliance Board President Jonathan Shepherd told The Undefeated in March. 

According to a new Commonwealth Fund story, Blacks (39%), women (39%), Latinos (40%) and people with lower incomes (44%) are most at risk of mental health concerns, at least 10 points higher than Whites because of the virus. 

“If you have somebody who is already anxious and nervous, already worried about, including the disease, stay-at-home orders, and other related things, just added to their problems,” said local psychotherapist Dr. Zakia Robbins-McNeil. Robbins-McNeil, veteran substance abuse counselor Samuel Simmons and NorthPoint mental health practitioner Brandon Jones were panelists at the Oct. 7 African American Leadership Forum virtual town hall series on mental health and COVID. 

“Being open and honest is a very dangerous place for many Black men because there is a lot of shame behind that,” reiterated Jones.

Robbins-McNeil added, “Some people have a real hard time thinking they could cope after being in the house for six months. Some people still have not gone outside or limit their interactions. It is taking a mental toll on everybody.”

Jones points out that some folk see mental health concerns as “going about during their day to day.”

“We keep these things internal and address them through bottles [of liquor], through marijuana, through sex, through violence,” he explains. “We don’t always talk about these things completely, [or] just a little bit.

“Typically some of the signs for us in your day-to-day functioning is, change in your mind, sleep patterns, eating less or more. [But] when it comes to Black folk, that’s our normal day to day,” said Jones. “It’s hard to determine when somebody should get help . . . because we deal with so much trauma, we even have language in our community—’it is what it is,’ and we really don’t deal with it.”

“If you deny your trauma, everybody hurts,” said Simmons, who added that how a person responds to it makes a huge difference in treating it. “Our refusal to deal with our trauma has gotten in the way of a lot of things that we sabotage our own selves with.  If you want to heal, you have to deal with the full truth.

 “The trauma response is when you refuse to deal with the full truth of your trauma,” continued Simmons. “You always find a reason not to do something you need to do. The trauma is not our fault but the healing is our responsibility.”

 Robbins-McNeil said that many today are now dealing with “COVID fatigue”—she admitted as a mental health professional that it affected her as well. “It got very heavy,” she recalled.  As Black women, “We’re the ones that have to maintain our stature. We are the voice of reason for a lot of people, whether it be our friends, family, clients that we service. I felt like everything got heavy. I kept trying to help other people. I hit a wall.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz last week announced a $3 million investment in mental health services for children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. The investment will be funded through the CARES Act passed by Congress earlier this year.

 Jones surmised that trust between the individual and the mental health professional is a necessity for effective treatment. “I set the tone and build a relationship right away,” he pointed out. “I share that therapy is not normal; it is not normal to go to a complete stranger and tell them all your deepest secrets.” But he quickly advised, “Don’t allow your uncomfortableness [to keep you] from getting the help you need. Take that risk to get the help you need.”

“Support can come in the form of a friend, your partner or an impartial therapist,” concluded Robbins-McNeil. “Acknowledge first that you are having an issue, then next decide that you want to get support.”