Study: Blacks are experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 mental health issues

National Suicide Prevention Week has kicked off for the month of September and is particularly pertinent this year considering the significant mental health toll the coronavirus pandemic is having on some.

The pandemic and its effects are being felt by Black Americans, more specifically Black women, who are dealing with the financial and social ramifications of COVID-19 without the kind of help that has traditionally been found among their family, according to a study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The Commonwealth Fund conducted a survey from March to May to try to understand how the pandemic was affecting people and found that Black and Latino people were reporting much higher rates of economic hardship than their white counterparts.

Riana Anderson, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said Black Americans have typically been able to offset the effects of stress by socializing among their peers and family. She said socialization has helped to improve their psychological well-being.

“During the pandemic, Black and Latino people, women, and people with lower incomes have faced significantly greater hardships than other groups in the U.S., even as they comprise a disproportionately large share of the essential workers critical to the functioning and reopening of the economy,” the study read.

“More than half of Latino and nearly half of Black survey respondents reported experiencing an economic challenge because of the pandemic — substantially more than the 21 percent of white respondents. Thirty-nine percent of women reported significant mental health concerns related to COVID-19, 13 percentage points higher than men. For people with low income, the rate of mental health concerns was nearly 20 points higher than the rate for people with high income,” the study added, noting that both Black and Latino respondents “reported pandemic-related mental health concerns at a rate approximately 10 points higher than whites.”

From March 30 to May 25, the researchers behind the survey spoke with 1,266 U.S. citizens, 146 of whom were Black and 199 were Latino.

The pandemic has also had a widespread effect regardless of race. Surveys from The Commonwealth Fund have found that 41% of U.S. adults are facing anxiety and depressive disorders problems but the numbers are higher for Black people and especially women.

Black people and women were more likely to report having anxiety and stress and people with low incomes had the highest rate for mental health concerns at 44%. That figure is 20 points higher than people reporting a higher income.

Black people are also suffering more financially due to the pandemic. Some Black businesses have shut down and reviews of government bailout packages have proven that Black people were almost entirely shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program, as Blavity previously reported.

“The Commonwealth Fund survey indicates that large numbers of Black and Latino adults, as well as people with low income, are struggling to pay for basic necessities and experiencing mental health concerns related to COVID-19. Such findings call for greater investments in the economic security of these disproportionately affected groups, including rent relief, nutrition assistance programs, and expanded access to behavioral health care,” the survey read.

In an interview with Black Enterprise this week, Dr. Shaun Fletcher noted that the mental health issues facing Black people have been exacerbated by the numerous videos of police shootings and the protests that took place this summer.

“Access to–and trust in–the health care system has been a historical barrier for the Black community, and now with COVID restrictions, many aren’t able to have regular access to culturally familiar mental health coping mechanisms, like family, community, and faith-based gatherings,” he said.

“On top of that, many young Black Americans are trying to reconcile their place in the fight for social justice, which can bring about undue emotional labor, cultural taxation, and even imposter syndrome,” he added.

Many other studies, including the one from the University of Michigan, have proven that Black people, and in particular Black women, are dealing with extraordinary amounts of stress and anxiety over the state of the country and are facing the brunt of the burden in keeping families together during this trying time.

Brandi Jackson and Aderonke Pederson wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post this week highlighting the mental health strain the pandemic is having on Black women, even high-profile figures like former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Jackson is the co-founding director of the Institute for Antiracism in Medicine, the director of Integrative Behavioral Health at Howard Brown Health and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center while Pederson is an instructor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Both experts explain that Black women are facing something extraordinary and different than any other period in history.

“Black women sit squarely at the confluence of multiple systems of oppression, and are experiencing a disproportionate loss of life and livelihood in the era of COVID-19. In the case of Black women, the symptoms are the inevitable result of the pandemic’s impact on human psyches that are already systematically oppressed and battered,” they wrote.

“Our current mental health systems over-pathologize Black women’s experience of pain and trauma without first affirming the source of the stress: ongoing delayed justice for our community,” they added.

The op-ed links to multiple studies showing that Black women overwhelmingly have worked as “essential” workers during the pandemic yet were still more likely than any other group to have been furloughed, fired or had hours and pay reduced.

“As psychiatrists, and as Black women, we believe it is imperative that our mental health is a national priority. Black women uphold households and serve the country as essential workers. We are strong. We are resilient. We persevere. But what we really need to maintain mental health is societal change, at all levels,” they wrote.

If you are in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 for assistance.

-Blavity