We Were Sick Before COVID-19: Mental Health in the Black Community

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
– Fannie Lou Hammer, 1964, on the physical and mental toll of white supremacy.

In 2020, extended quarantine and incomparable grief have renewed the collective conversation around mental health. Therapists have made a quick switch to online services. Companies have generated guidelines for employees to avoid burnout during these unprecedented times. Social media posts have reminded users to check in on their friends, meditate, and get enough sleep. There seems to be some universal understanding of the imperative; if the virus doesn’t get to you, compromised mental health will.

Currently, there are at least three deadly illnesses disproportionately, and exhaustively, affecting the livelihood of the Black community: racism, Covid-19, and the resulting effects on our sanity. Long before a novel coronavirus touched down in the US this year, the Black population was already attempting survival in spite of our suffering mental health. According to a 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health, Black men continue to “underutilize” mental health treatment, while bearing the highest all-cause mortality rates of any racial/ethnic group in the United States.

Though treatments such as therapy have become increasingly adopted by the masses, barriers remain for the Black community. In the US, 11% of Black people are uninsured, making access to behavioral services cost-prohibitive for too many of us. Even amongst the insured, time-tested distrust of medical institutions prevails within the Black community, stemming from years of ongoing mental and bodily marring at the hands of predominantly White doctors and scientists.

For those of us who do seek therapy, an issue of representation emerges. Black behavioral health experts make up only 4% of the psychology workforce. When much of the population learned of microaggressions this year, it is abundantly clear that a non-Black therapist cannot truly understand, let alone counsel, the nuance of the diasporic Black experience. In seeking mental health support, each gender faces additionally unique obstacles, with LGBTQ+ and those with disabilities often ending up most alienated from proper care.

Progress will look like Black minds mattering, and Black lives being viewed as more than just Black bodies. While recent global and national events may have rejuvenated the topic of emotional self-care, there will be no further evolution of the conversation until America identifies its long-running, systemically driven Black mental health crisis and our community is proportionately represented and advocated for within mental healthcare.

Reed True