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Racism, Covid and the toll on Black mental health

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

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The events of the past year, from the pandemic to the extent of systemic racism exposed by both the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid-19, have taken their toll.

Headlines about ongoing acts of racism and police brutality continue to trend in the news and on social media. For many of us, the drumbeat of it all, seems never ending.

Racial trauma is nothing new. Black resistance to racist violence isn’t new either: from slave rebellions to the Civil Rights Movement, the Black community has always risen up against oppression. What is new, however, is being Black in a global pandemic that has killed Black people in disproportionately high numbers, whilst seeing people who look like you killed daily by police brutality, as you navigate daily microaggressions.

The notion of “living in your skin” always came with a degree of risk for those in the Black community. We’re taught to always be on alert - of racism and discrimination and now, of Covid-19. We’re reminded in the news that we might leave the house, never to return because of the skin we’re in. We’re trying to find safety and joy in normal activities because stress becomes distress and operating on a constant level of alert is simply not a healthy way to live.

Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Within a week of George Floyd’s murder, anxiety and depression amongst the Black community shot to higher rates than experienced by any other racial or ethnic group.

It’s hard for others outside of the community to understand the level to which we feel each others’ pain. Although we may not have a personal connection to the individuals slain, it could have been us or someone we know, and that ultimately leads to additional stress and anxiety around these incidents. The harsh reality is that “Living whilst Black” has a profound and traumatic impact on mental health.

Early on, we were told that ‘Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate’. So “We’re all in this together” became the rallying cry of the pandemic. While it is true that Covid-19 has affected everyone in some way, the magnitude and nature of the impact has been anything but universal. The disparate racial impact of the virus is deeply rooted in historic and ongoing social and economic injustices. Persistent racial disparities in health status, wealth, employment, wages, housing, income, and poverty all contribute to greater susceptibility to the virus—both economically and physically.

The Black community make up a disproportionate share of essential workers forced to put themselves and their family members at additional risk of contracting and spreading the virus, in order to put food on the table. It’s no surprise that illness and deaths are higher among Black workers and their families. All of which add further trauma to a community whose mental and physical health already suffer because of anti-Black sentiment.

We are now more than a year into the pandemic. Long before the discontent and anxiety of 2020, mental health within the Black community was a significant but often overlooked issue. Now, it’s reached the level of a ‘mental health crisis’.

The state of mental health in the Black community is one of a mixed bag. There remains a stigma and a general cultural distrust of mental health professionals, which is not without merit. Historically, Black people have been misdiagnosed at higher rates than our counterparts and the Black community has been exploited by the medical community and governments in the name of medical advancement. Also, there simply aren’t enough mental health professionals who look like us, or who understand our plight. At the same time, seeking mental health care is often viewed as a weakness, running counter to the survivalist mentality born from systemic oppression and chronic racism.

Without doubt, living through a pandemic leaves us all at an elevated risk of mental health problems. However, with the tremendous social, psychological and economic load of facing BOTH Covid-19 and racism, the Black community are carrying a particularly heavy burden.

We know that these racial ethnic disparities are the result of pre-pandemic realities that will prolong the effects of the pandemic in the Black community long after the immediate threat of Covid-19 has passed.

George Floyd’s last words were ‘I can’t breathe.’ On a psychological level, those in the Black community feel the same. Although we are breathing, we cannot get air. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It’s a challenge every single day.

We are strong. We are resilient. We persevere. But what we really need to maintain mental health is societal change, at all levels. If not for the longstanding history of racial inequities, would Covid-19 or police violence have been able to claim so many Black lives?

Racism is everyone’s business, and acting against it is everyone’s responsibility. More so at this time than ever, as it’s clear that we cannot effectively tackle pandemics unless we tackle racism. If we can see racism for what it is, a scar on society that damages us all, and if we can act to tackle it in all its forms, then the light that Covid has shone on racism will guide us to a better place.

At this point, the Black community are tired of crying out for systemic change, but we’re also not accepting anything less.

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