In the United States, 16% of Black Americans reported struggling with mental health issues in the past year, according to Mental Health America, which is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting overall mental health for all. That amounts to more than 7 million people. Historical oppression and violence against Black Americans are tied to structural and interpersonal racism.
This is seen in recent cases of police brutality and divisiveness of the current sociopolitical climate, which further shows the continued explicit and implicit biases against Black Americans, according to the American Psychiatric Association. This is especially pertinent during the COVID-19 pandemic in which health inequities and isolation are exacerbated, further affecting mental health among Black communities.
“Even though we have made a lot of progress in [even talking about mental disorders in] the Black community, there's a lot of work to be done. We must make sure that everyone knows it's OK not to be OK,” AMA Immediate Past President Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, said during the recent Black Health Matters Virtual Summit.
“Pre-pandemic, we did not have a solid infrastructure of services that we needed and … communities of color had even less access to mental health treatment,” said Dr. Harris, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Atlanta.
As Black communities continue to process layers of individual trauma on top of trauma caused by COVID-19 and police brutality in the country, there are ways to responsibly manage mental health. Here are some tips to share with your Black patients to protect their mental health.
In this time of COVID-19, here's where to start: You must give yourself the grace and the space to feel whatever feelings you have,” said Dr. Harris. “You may experience anxiety, depressed [sad] mood and feel isolated. You may develop a diagnosable anxiety or mood disorder.
“But when you need help—whether to help you cope with what are typical reactions to the moment or you develop more severe symptoms—the message is clear: There is no shame in seeking professional help,” she added.
The pandemic has contributed to people staying at home and skipping out on physical activities. But it is important to get moving.
“I have gained the COVID 20, but try as much as you can and get your body moving,” said Dr. Harris. If you can’t get outside for a walk, “put on your favorite artist and dance or move around the house.”
“We all need to take breaks from the news and social media,” said Dr. Harris. “I had to do that. I’m a huge sports fan so I listen to local sports talk radio programming and HGTV.
For those “who are parents, create new routines and have your children be a part of the creation of these new routines,” she said. “And ensure balanced time on social media.”
“Now, we do want to stay connected. We can't hug, we can't have that physical connection, but we can be connected virtually,” said Dr. Harris. “Although now with virtual fatigue, we have to take breaks from all day virtual meetings.”
Dr. Harris urges standing for a portion of the meeting or quick movement breaks between meetings as much as possible.
Additionally, “don't forget our senior population. They may not be able to connect via Zoom or digital, so pick up the phone,” she said, adding that another option is to “volunteer to go get groceries for them and leave them outside.
“But let's do all that we can to stay connected,” Dr. Harris added.
COVID-19, police injustice, divisive political discourse, work, school, family stressors and more “can be overwhelming,” Dr. Harris said. “Now is the time to make a plan for mental health and wellness—daily mental wellness check ins, normalizing discussion of these issues and identifying in person and virtual resources and support services.
“Just as we are making a plan to receive our COVID 19 vaccinations, make a plan for your mental health needs,” she added.
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