2020 was the year of hard-won lessons. The COVID-19 pandemic brought nationwide lockdowns, an economic/financial crisis, and rising racial tensions. For most of us, “doing well” meant simply being able to muddle through the days. But, if there’s one thing last year taught the world, it’s that dark times often reveal what’s been “hidden” to the light. What is now – and should have been – very apparent to all is that Black people have been stressed long before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s difficult to put into words the relationship between mental health and the Black community. There has been a longstanding history of the topic of mental health being taboo in our community. This crippling stigma has unfortunately travelled generations. Truthfully, the conversation is continuous but more consistent than ever before. We’re seeing more acceptance within our community, but the progress is slow. There’s still a mistrust of mental health professionals and the health industry in general amongst the community. The implicit bias and racial disparities amongst Black patients is still an obstacle we have yet to overcome.
History and AccesssAccording to Mental Health America, Black people experience direct traumatic stressors (being heavily policed or being victims of physical and verbal attacks), indirect stressors (the effects of viewing the video of the killing of Black men, women and children), and transmitted stressors (from traumatic stress passed from one generation to the next). One may think that having to deal with so much trauma would make it easier to decide to seek help, but that isn’t the case in our community for a multitude of reasons. It is clear that systemic barriers disproportionately impact mental health in the Black community. Unfortunately, there are many factors that contribute to the mistrust of health care assistance and the access to those benefits. Although the Black community makes up roughly 12% of the population, we are overrepresented in high-risk populations and impacted heavily by negative occurrences. We make up 50% of the prison population, 45% of children in the foster care system and 40% of the homeless population.
This isn’t even factoring in the historical, economic, social and political influences that systemically expose our community to factors that have proven to be physically and psychologically damaging. The unequal access to health care is one of the major contributors to this large disparity in mental health treatment. Once we have access to these doctors and professionals, we’re still having to deal with the lack of cultural sensitivity by these same professionals, leaving us feeling marginalized. That’s why we see such a heavy reliance on family, community and spiritual support instead of medical or psychiatric treatment (even when it is critically necessary). While stigma and minimization of symptoms are identified as significant obstacles for (lack of) mental health care, the cost of these systems is probably the largest issue of them all. Even prior to the pandemic, Black people faced many obstacles in obtaining adequate physical and mental health care. Structural barriers to accessing medical care already existed, in that Black Americans were more likely to be uninsured, not have a primary care doctor and again to live in underserved areas. The pandemic related public health measures still oftentimes left those most vulnerable without services or on the margins. So with the lack of healthcare assistance, putting our lives on the line every single day, the mistrust of the medical industry and the ever present racial inequities… where does that leave us?
Can you imagine how much exposure to violence, involvement in the system and incarceration can impact the mental health of our community?