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Analyzing mental health in the Black community during the pandemic

Published: Jan. 6, 2021 at 12:18 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 6, 2021 at 6:07 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Mental health experts across the country are analyzing the ways the COVID-19 pandemic and racial tensions are compounding and negatively impacting the mental well-being of Black Americans.

For Black, Indigenous and people of color, the precarious threat of losing life, financial stability and community has existed for decades, even centuries.

“If it is not a public health emergency, it is the police. It is a lack of opportunity. So, we have so much trauma that we deal with every day and many people do not know, do not understand,” said Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7. “And the coronavirus just highlighted that emotionally. People of color are drained, they are tired, they’ve been waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel for so long.”

Alyssa Brown, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in several states including Vermont, says 2020 felt like adding insult to injury for many Black Vermonters.

“I think a lot of folks felt like it was kind of like being kicked when you’re down,” Brown said. “When the whole country is dealing with COVID and trying to navigate job losses and the changes of kids being home and all of it and just having lockdowns and all of the confusion and people trying to navigate that and deal with those changes, and then on top of that, all of the other fears and dangers of being Black in America.”

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic exposed racial disparities in housing, policing, criminal justice, schools and especially in health care. Studies show people of color are two to five times more likely to be infected with or die of COVID due to several barriers, including inadequate access to health care or affordable insurance. The mental toll is also steep, especially amid racial tensions following the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Breonna Taylor in her Louisville, Kentucky, home, and Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Brown says the Black community is in a state of grief.

”Grieving family and friends that we’ve lost, people that we know personally and the folks who have lost their lives to police brutality and were, you know, murdered,” she said.

Xusana Davis, Vermont’s first racial equity director, says people of color tend to have poorer mental health outcomes than white people due to structural, social and economic barriers.

“We know, for example, that in Vermont, Indigenous people in 2015 were being diagnosed with depression at a rate of 1 in 3 compared to white Vermonters, who were being diagnosed at a rate of 1 in 5,” said Davis. “Another thing to consider is not just how often we’re seeing diagnosis or what the prevalence is but also are these numbers really reflective of the community-at-large? In other words, could it have been a higher number of Indigenous people if more Indigenous people in Vermont had access to the services and the professionals who could’ve accurately diagnosed them? So these are all things to consider. We know that things like generational trauma in the Black, Indigenous, Latino and Asian communities compounds experiences so that we’re not just reacting to the experiences that we’ve had firsthand, we’re also drawing from what we know about what our parents and their parents have gone through.”

Davis says there’s much work to do on the city and state level to address and eliminate these disparities.

“Of course, everything that we’re talking about here is inextricably linked to other sectors, so we can’t have public health campaigns without also talking about public education. We can’t talk about social discipline without talking about criminal justice, traffic stops and the school to prison pipeline. We can’t talk about hiring and workforce retention of employees of color without also talking about socioeconomic stratification and the trade-off that people have to make in order to accept certain employment,” Davis said. “So much of it really is just intertwined pieces of a big puzzle, so I suppose one of the biggest takeaways for us is it’s important that we can’t just tackle this piecemeal because we’re not really moving the needle unless we’re taking a multi-sectorial approach.”

Brown says practitioners in the state are also making changes to the way they treat Black and brown clients, such as working to be more culturally-humble and addressing the financial burden of therapy.

“I think there should be mandatory training, mandatory consultation if therapists are planning to work with Black folks. I think there needs to be some real conversation around facilitating the financial burden that it can take to be engaged in therapy. Figuring out ways to provide, maybe, grants,” said Brown. “I know [Rep. Brian Cina-P/D-Burlingon] is working on legislation around mental health and wellness centers and I’ve been speaking with him and there are a bunch of us who are working on that too and thinking outside of the box— ways to facilitate that and reduce those barriers of access.”

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