Caring for Mental Health in Communities of Color During COVID-19

Lack of access to testing, fear of being profiled while wearing face masks, and other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health in communities of color. Learn what one leader is doing about it.

One of the most troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is exacerbating long-standing and deeply rooted inequities in communities of color. Health disparities stemming from structural racism have contributed to COVID-19’s devastating toll on blacks and Latinos in America. Often overlooked is how heightened stress from this heavy burden is impacting mental health.

Yolo Akili Robinson, a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity, is swiftly responding to this new reality the pandemic has created. As the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), he leads his colleagues in training health care providers and community activists, as well as non-mental health professionals (family members, peers, etc.) to address mental health needs in communities of color. Robinson is witnessing firsthand how lack of access to testing and fear of profiling while wearing face masks, among other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health.

In the following Q&A, Robinson shares insights about the impact and implications of COVID-19 on mental health within communities of color.

What are the unique mental health needs facing the communities of color you work with during this pandemic?

First, we must acknowledge the historic causes of mental health challenges: the legacy of racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, economic stressors, and systemic failures that contribute to our mental health struggles. Adding COVID-19 has greatly amplified this distress.

Data is showing that people of color are more likely to die from COVID-19. That’s not surprising. We have already been living in spaces zoned so that black and brown people aren’t healthy—in food deserts, or where the water isn’t safe to drink, for example. And we endure untreated chronic conditions that lead to poorer outcomes from COVID-19, while struggling to access health care. So when COVID-19 began spreading, we were already in distress because of systemic and structural failings.

When people of color actually do manage to receive care, doctors are more likely to minimize their pain and dismiss their symptoms. Serena Williams, a world famous athlete, experienced this. So imagine if you’re not a celebrity, but an elder in rural Alabama! Will you be heard? We have a long way to go in dismantling all of the “isms” within the system.

At BEAM we’re seeing these factors culminate in greater depressive symptoms and increased isolation within our communities. For instance, we are seeing that our folks who are living with diagnosed mental conditions like bipolar or anxiety disorders report higher distress.  

We also rely on our traditions to process grief. After a funeral, we usually return to the home and eat together, a repast. That’s part of our healing process and how we support one another. Mandated bans on traveling and gatherings have interrupted these traditions when we need them the most.

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