Finding Mental Health Support Amid Dual Pandemics

Key mental health considerations for Black people during COVID-19 and the fight for racial justice
Exhausted Black Man Sitting at Computer Rubbing Temple

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen in almost every facet of our lives: in the news, on the street, in how we think and even in how we define “normal.” 

Equally devastating, though often less visible, is the effect the pandemic is having on people’s mental health.  

This can be especially true for Black Americans, because COVID-19 has both disproportionately impacted Black folks and other communities of color and exacerbated the inequities caused by systemic racism, including access to health care. 

As David Ansell, MD, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center, says in a 2020 ProPublica Illinois article: “Every natural disaster will peel back the day-to-day covers over society and reveal the social fault lines that decide in some ways who gets to live and who gets to die. And in the United States, those vulnerabilities are often at the intersection of race and health.”

The ongoing violence against Black people and the heightened global awareness of racial injustice can also add to the strain on Black people’s mental health. This includes the recent trial — and conviction — of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd; the shooting deaths of Daunte Wright and Ma'Khia Bryant by police; and the violent treatment of Army officer Caron Nazario by police during a traffic stop, among many other incidents. 

We spoke with Ethan Powe, MSW, LCSW, a clinical social worker at Rush, to identify a few strategies that Black folks, and other communities of color, can use to support themselves and others during these challenging times. 

Naming the problem

Many aspects of a person’s life, including their culture, environment and community, can affect how they live. One of the first steps in supporting your own mental health is identifying that you may be struggling or that a problem exists. Describing what is going on in your life or how you are feeling can allow you to analyze where the issues may stem from, Powe says.

“There's a whole series of things that people need to pay attention to when they're thinking about their emotional well-being because it's tied to everything,” he adds.

Powe encourages asking questions about important parts of your life, such as the state of your personal relationships, how your work is going, your physical health or your financial situation. Questions like these will enable you to better understand the challenges and stressors you’re facing.

“Nobody's reality or the state of their emotional being is detached from their ability to get food, to find work, to have affordable housing,” says Powe. “All these things affect us in profound ways in terms of how we feel about ourselves and the world.” 

While it may be difficult to get to this point, doing some soul searching can empower you to confront your problems or struggles. 

The importance of having support

Once you have identified that a problem exists, it’s crucial to seek help. If you don’t address your problems, Powe explains, they will likely persist and possibly worsen. 

Your relationships with others may also suffer. Personal experiences or trauma have the potential to severely impact your ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety or hopelessness.

That’s why seeking support is so critical. Although access to mental health resources may be limited within certain communities, Powe implores people to seek help where they can. “Having a strong connection to your community, to family, to those support systems, it means everything for a person being able to get through tough times,” he says.

Support systems and coping mechanisms can look different for every person, and there is no right way to go. Family members, friends, community organizations, faith-based institutions and social workers are all great resources for someone experiencing challenging times. For some, exercise may be an effective coping strategy, while writing in a journal works better for others. What matters, Powe says, is that the strategy works for you.

It’s equally important to reach out and offer support to others who may be struggling, especially if you have shared experiences. Leaning on one another and supporting each other is mutually beneficial and can allow communities to adapt to difficult circumstances together. Whether you participate in a support group or just call folks every so often to check in, you can make a big difference.   

“Staying connected to people that you care about, to organizations that you care about as much as you can, even if it seems like a small thing, it's going to be really important,” Powe says.

Mental health resources

In addition to personal support, professional help can also be beneficial. You can find support through the following mental health resources:

  • Mental Health America (MHA) – promotes a variety of mental health resources including tools and information to help individuals understand and handle their conditions, references to local and state chapters of MHA and local organizations that address specific mental health conditions, and screenings for specific mental health conditions.
  • The Chicago Department of Public Health – provides mental health services from therapy to crisis intervention for residents with or without insurance at five clinics across the city.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – offers free peer support groups and classes to teach mental health management and support strategies for those striving to help loved ones. It also has a resource page with hotlines and organizations to address specific mental health conditions or other health needs.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health – makes informational materials on numerous mental health conditions available online to the public. Information on clinical trial treatments as well as crisis hotlines and resources are also available on the website.

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