The Defender recently spoke with Dr. Deborah Wilson, a licensed professional counselor and assistant professor in the mental health counseling program at Texas Southern University, about the mental/emotional impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on Blacks, and what we can do to maintain and improve our psychological well-being.

Q: How is the pandemic impacting people of color specifically mentally (emotionally, psychologically)?

Wilson: Fear and anxiety have risen in the general population in face of the evolving coronavirus pandemic. Most of us are impacted by it whether we know someone who has it, or died as a result of it, or not. For most, and particularly African Americans, the fear, stress, and anxiety as a result of the pandemic, are exacerbated by fears, emotions and behaviors we experience in the normal course of daily living in American society, prior to the pandemic. This in turn has added to issues that impact our overall mental health and well-being.

Q: What are signs that we should seek help for the ways the pandemic is impacting our mental/emotional/psychological health?

Wilson: Many in the Houston area have not fully recovered from the emotional and economic impact of Hurricane Harvey and may be experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders, and could benefit from therapeutic intervention… The clients I have worked with over the past few weeks have expressed the stress and anxiety they feel as a result of a forced change in their “normal routine;” worries of a lack of control focused on their uncertainty related to maintaining the status quo – their position (work), or their “planned” future or loss of control of their destiny… There are also disclosures of feelings of guilt, shame, and calling into question confidence in their work, due to the inability to be physically present to gage the responses of their colleagues’ response to their input. This is especially true for African-Americans who have achieved some level of success.

The reality of the situation is that the coronavirus has no boundaries, and does not discriminate based on race, social status or class. The key to coping is one’s ability to express what he/ she is feeling emotionally and experiencing, and putting what is happening in perspective, in terms of reality… Expressing ones feelings and emotions, lessens the emotional impact from a psychological standpoint and consequently a physical standpoint. Being overwhelmed by stress and anxiety manifests itself in a deterioration of the mind, body and spirit.

Q: What help do you recommend we seek?

Talk to someone: The most import thing a person can do is talk about what they are experiencing emotionally. One of the things I have heard in interacting with clients is a sense of shame and embarrassment in terms of expressing how they feel. “This is the first time in my life that I have not been in control.” “I’m usually the one taking care of others. I’m now asking myself, who is going to take care of me?” “I never felt it necessary to talk or been inclined to express my feelings.” And, “I don’t want anyone to know my business, or to appear weak.” Yet, these same clients were so relieved to have disclosed what they were experiencing – the fear, weaknesses, stress, anxiety, being lonely, and issues related to confidence in their work (many are highly skilled/ talented). More important was the relief of knowing, that what they are feeling/ experiencing is normal and healthy from a psychological perspective. Being able to process via introspection in terms of reality is calming. I cannot overemphasize encouraging someone to talk about what they are feeling.

Turn off the TV or social media: You want to abreast of information related to friends, relatives, and other matters. But, turn it off and do something that you or you and the family enjoy. Practice self-care and compassion for others.

Take a work break: If you work from home, don’t allow your work to become the focus of your existence. Prior to the lock-down what did your “routine” outside of work consist of? Were you a mentor? If so, reach out. They will be excited to hear from you. Right now more than ever, we need each other.

Try cognitive restructuring: I talked with a client the other day that was really down because of excessive thoughts of a deceased parent. I shared with the client that I had a fleeting thought about my mom, who is deceased, and then laughed, interjecting that if she were here, she would have a few choice words about what’s going on. The client laughed so hard, in agreement. A sad thought was restructured into positive memories.

Remember the children: We often discount our children’s feelings and emotions. And though there’s much talk about schools being shut down, homeschooling, etc., not a lot is being said about the feelings and emotions that our children may be experiencing. They are just as impacted psychologically as adults. Their “normal routine” has been up ended, and they are overwhelmed and lonely too. They miss their friends, and are suspended in their journey into the world, from a developmental perspective, and are in some cases unable to express it. Encourage your children to express how they are feeling and experiencing, and proceed accordingly.

Q: Do you have any special advice for those who have suffered the loss of a close friend or family member?

Wilson: Grieving is a process… and many experiencing the death of a family or friend, are literally suspended in the process, with limited control of the process to make “normal” decisions related to the transition. Here, all one can offer is condolence and prayers. If you or someone you know has experienced loss your and/or are overwhelmed, seek the services of a trained therapist, reach out to church family and close friends. We need each other! I strongly advocate therapeutic intervention… Most insurance companies have waived copays for therapeutic intervention. If you work Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) offer confidential sessions through telephonic support almost immediately at no cost. Medicaid and Medicare also offer these services at no cost to members impacted by the pandemic.

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Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...