It’s not a secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has vastly impacted every sector of society across America and beyond. And it’s no secret that the pandemic, which began in March of 2020, has disproportionately affected Black people and other people of color when it comes to rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
When the loss of loved ones, loss of jobs and loss of hope are factored into the equation, Blacks, more than other ethnicity, are experiencing mental health challenges at a higher rate.
According to Dr. Riana Anderson, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many Black communities were dealing with racial discrimination in various aspects of their lives. Compounded by the widely-viewed murder of George Floyd, the subsequent protests in the streets of many cities, including Detroit, and the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, African Americans’ mental health weight has been a continued burden.
“Detroit was hit so hard so early in the pandemic, where we lost many loved ones and saw many of our community leaders passing away due to the coronavirus,” said Anderson, who was born and raised in Detroit. “The pandemic has been a year of grief. Many people did not have the opportunity to grieve the loss of loved ones fully. It takes a heavy toll on the mental health of African Americans.”
Anderson also touched on how individuals’ mental health is being impacted because no one knows when the pandemic will end and who else will contract the virus, be hospitalized or die.
“There is the element of the unknown that’s really a challenging part of maintaining good mental health,” Anderson said. “With this pandemic, there is no end in sight which brings about a lot of anxiety, depression and stress.”
A part of the unknown in Michigan is when school-aged children will return to in-person classes. Anderson has a significant role in providing information to Gov. Whitmer to make decisions about children returning to schools across the state. Anderson serves on the Student Recovery Advisory Council’s Student Wellness Subcommittee that will soon submit a comprehensive report to the governor regarding recommendations to accommodate students in schools, addressing concerns for physical and mental safety.
While there is consistent talk about PTSD and how people will handle the other side of the pandemic, Anderson basically says, “not so fast with the post talk.”
“Instead of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder right now, it’s more of a Cumulative Stress Disorder or Complex Stress Disorder because the pandemic is not over; people are still experiencing extremely stressful situations in the midst of the pandemic. The use of ‘post’ is really challenging because the impacts are going on now in our daily lives and daily well-being.”
Anderson cautions that people must evaluate where they are mentally right now. Are they sleeping? Are they eating? Are they drinking in ways that are not serving them well?
“Some people may be getting by but may not be functioning that well,” said Anderson. “If you’re not doing well relative to another time in your life, maybe it’s time to get some help to get yourself better.”
While Anderson said that she doesn’t like to stereotype behaviors based on race, she remembers growing up in Detroit. Anderson recalls a time when people who needed mental health services simply would say, “I’m not crazy” or “There’s nothing wrong with me.“
Anderson said that people should not worry about the stigma of seeking mental health. She points to how people can make private phone calls or use virtual platforms to communicate with mental health professionals and agencies.
She said there are many free or low-cost services available, especially during the pandemic. Anderson identified a few social media platforms that are ready to help people – many of which are 24/7 — with mental wellness services including Our Mental Health Minute, Eustress, Therapy for Black Girls, Black Mental Wellness, Black Emotional and Mental Health and Talk Naija.
Anderson identified churches as long-standing traditional places for Black people to turn to in times of despair.
Lisa Goss, a clinical therapist (M.A. and LLPC), who is also an ordained minister at Third New Hope Baptist Church in Detroit, agrees.
“I believe counseling ministries in the church are good places to start for helping African Americans begin to trust mental health therapy and services,” said Goss. “The church is excellent because that’s where so many people go, but for a long time, the church didn’t talk about anxiety, depression and other mental wellness issues that people faced. That’s changed.”
Goss has been helping people cope with what’s going on in their lives. She has been impactful at assisting people in acknowledging and accepting that they are in a pandemic, and there are certain things that they can’t control.
“We are always trying to control things; we want to control everything in our lives,” she said. “Once people realize this pandemic is out of their control, that our comfort, our hope, our joy were not coming from MSNBC or CDC or the government, they realize it’s coming from the Lord.”
Moving forward, Goss is counseling people to realize that what was once normal most likely will not be that way again because so much has changed. She believes it’s essential for people to seek help in maintaining mental wellness, now and in the foreseeable future.
“Due to the pandemic, depression has increased, anxiety has increased, substance use has increased, physical abuse has increased, suicide has increased,” Goss said. “We have to make sure that we continue to address what the pandemic is doing to people mentally and spiritually.”
Goss said that she loves interfacing with people during the pandemic via phone or virtually.
“I’m in a unique place,” Goss said. “I am able to help people from a clinical and spiritual perspective, and for that, I’m grateful.”
With the passing of the $1.9 trillion bill enacted by the Biden administration signed, Anderson is hopeful that a significant portion of the money is sent to Michigan.
“I want to see more money allocated for African Americans and other underserved people and communities in Detroit,” said Anderson. “The three most significant areas that we see that are stopping Black people from seeking mental health services are quality, access and utilization.”
Another mental health researcher and professional with roots in Michigan agrees with Anderson. Dr. Rodlescia Sneed told Psychology Today during a recent interview about her research on the pandemic’s social and psychological impacts in Michigan’s African American communities.
“Fear of racial bias in healthcare is a real concern for African Americans,” said Dr. Sneed, an African American who is an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. “People are in need of mental health support and really appreciate getting it, especially when they can do so without seeing a traditional mental health provider. We must have organized efforts to promote stress and trauma management in community settings. It’s okay to seek support if you need it.”