Author: IAP Staff
In April of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared that racism is a threat to public health in the United States. COVID-19 has re-illuminated that reality across the country in both the physical and mental health consequences of the pandemic. Communities of color have experienced a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and mental illnesses during the pandemic. While the specific reasonings are layered, they are rooted in the United States’ historical systemic racism that the CDC warns of. In addition to disparities in access to quality preventive health care and treatment, racism has also fueled a deep-seated distrust of healthcare systems and governmental systems more broadly in many communities of color.
A few notable examples of medical racism throughout U.S. history include James Marion Sims, who has been called “The Father of Modern Gynecology” in the United States and was known to have come to many of his surgical learnings by experimenting on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or consent.[ii] Recent news reports have revealed what was already widely known throughout Native communities about atrocities and deaths that occurred at government-funded “residential schools” for Native youth throughout Canada and the United States.[iii] In the 1950s, physicians and researchers at Johns Hopkins University took the cells of a Black patient, Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge or consent when she was being treated for cervical cancer and used them for decades following her death in the development of many medical advancements.[iv] All of these and the countless other known and unknown examples of institutionalized and medical racism throughout the history of the United States have resulted in an understandable distrust of American health systems amongst communities of color that continues through the present day.
The pervasiveness and complexities around such racialized traumas [v] cannot be understated. We are seeing the consequences of such being repeated during the current pandemic with higher numbers of cases and deaths in communities of color.[vi] The mental health implications of the various stressors resulting from the COVID-19 global pandemic is no exception to this pattern of racial disparities in the United States. For so many people across the country, the life changes that resulted from the pandemic brought on new or more severe mental health challenges. In fact, it would likely be difficult to find many people whose mental health has not been impacted in some way -- big or small -- over the duration of the ongoing pandemic.
Given the novelty of the circumstances stemming from the pandemic in modern times, the depths of the full mental health implications will take years for researchers to understand. However, initial studies already show increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. For example, a January 2021 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that four out of ten adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to one out of ten adults who reported those symptoms prior to the pandemic in January through June 2019.[vii] Researchers are of course continuing to track these issues, but not surprisingly, initial studies have also found racial disparities in mental health challenges during the pandemic consistent with the CDC’s determination that racism poses a severe threat to public health in the United States.[ix] Some states, including Maryland and Connecticut, have reported disproportionate increases in suicide rates among Black residents during the early months of the pandemic.[x] In Maryland, suicide rates for Black residents doubled while rates for White residents dropped by half. Stressors such as job loss, food insecurity, deaths of loved ones, and disruptions to access to support services have disproportionately impacted people and communities of color throughout the pandemic.[xi] One survey published by the CDC found that Latinx adults reported higher levels of stress related to not having enough food or stable housing than did U.S. adults in other racial and ethnic groups.[xii]
All of these stressors are compounded by the heightened racial stress for people of color during 2020-21, including increased attention to and pushback on racial violence from law enforcement agencies, shifts in immigration policies, and increases in racist violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders throughout the pandemic, among others.
Increased access to quality mental health treatment for people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the various stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic will be an essential part of the collective recovery process for the nation.
The CDC and other organizations have taken initial steps towards providing resources to increase awareness and accessibility. These issues are certainly challenging, but it is incumbent upon mental health practitioners to do their part by learning more about the issues, educating themselves on the cultural and historical context of race in this country, and ensuring that their services are culturally-informed. There is a steep hill to climb with mental health recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but any such efforts will be insufficient without attention to these issues. For additional information, please see the resources listed below and cited at the end of this post.
● CDC: Racism and Health Information
● Mental Health America: BIPOC and LGBTQ+ COVID-19 Resources