I CAN’T BREATHE! As a doctor I have heard these three words from more Black patients over this last month than any other time in my career. These folks are not responding to a knee on the neck or other choke hold. Rather they are referring to the breathlessness that comes from the stress, the anxiety created by the deaths of a multitude of Black men and women. The breaking point was the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of kneeling that ended George Floyd’s life. This malicious act coupled with the COVID-19 virus lurking has been too much to bear.
Feeling the Pain
The stress of being Black in America was magnified in those minutes. As I try to help my patients through these very tough times I have to guard my heart and soul. If I succumb to the pain that reverberates through my body as I think about the source of their pain, I would become paralyzed and unable to support their needs. I am there to be a sounding board, to give them hope and a way out of the pain. Though I am not a mental health provider, the trusted position I hold and being part of the FAMILY, I have to be there. I know that the trauma of police violence is particularly dangerous given our weakened state related to coronavirus concerns. This exacts a toll as well. I certainly will be practicing some the things I mention in this post.
Racism, Police Brutality on top of COVID-19
Let’s get past this because this is not about me, but about the collective family that has to keep moving forward. It is about being mindful that COVID-19 is still out there attacking. There are now over 2.8 million cases and almost 130,000 deaths in the U.S. African Americans are still disproportionately represented in deaths from this disease. We have to name and claim the impact that our current situations are having on us. Police brutality is just one of the symptoms of our broken system and Black people continue to be the sacrificial lambs. Systemic racism is longstanding and infects all of our systems including the criminal justice system. Job loss, inadequate healthy food, inadequate schools, and health inequities are all products of racism.
Anxiety and Depression in the Black Community
‘Ordinarily’ 1 in 4 Black Americans have some form of anxiety. This is compared to 18% of the general population. About 1 in 3 Black Americans have some degree of depression. Visit www.mhascreening.org to complete a depression screening. However, don’t just look at the numbers, seek help if the results suggest you are depressed.
Not surprising, the current happenings have led to a spike in the rates of anxiety/ depression in the Black community. One survey that highlighted this was the 2020 COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau. The purpose of these surveys is to provide up to date information on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Americans. This helps governmental agents identify any pressure points in the community.
While this survey was designed to address COVID- 19 issues, what bubbled up to the top of the June 4th edition was that 41% of Black respondents suffered anxiety and/or depression during the week following George Floyd’s death at the knee of the policeman. That was a 5% increase from the previous week. Experts believe that George Floyd’s death witnessed by many due to traditional media and social media, contributed to this uptick.
What was your gut reaction when you saw the videos?
The Impact is Consistent
Interesting in 2018, there was a study authored by the brilliant, Dr. David R Williams and others entitled, Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of Black Americans. Though it was published two years ago, the information is still accurate and timely. The study noted that 300 Black Americans are killed by police a year. The study examined the primary exposure which was the number of police killings of unarmed Black people that occurred three months prior to a standard interview within the same state. The primary outcome was the days in the previous month that the respondent’s mental health was reported as “not good”.
38,993 out of 103,710 Black Americans were exposed to one or more police killings of unarmed Blacks in their state. The study found that police killings of unarmed Black Americans were responsible for more than 50 million additional days of poor mental health per year among U.S. WOW! and WOW! The largest effects on respondent’s mental health occurred in the 1-2 months after exposure. The study did also note that there were no mental health impacts observed among white respondents who were exposed to killings of unarmed Black people.
Study conclusion: police killings, particularly of unarmed Black Americans have an adverse effect on the mental health of Black American adults.
“When you have all these experiences day in and day out it has a weathering effect on your mental health.”
Simone Leavell-Bruce, PhD candidate
Vicarious Trauma, What is it?
Mental health providers describe these instances of witnessing brutal deaths by police as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma refers to indirect exposures to a traumatic event either through first- hand account or through narrative of the event. We can respond in many different ways to vicarious trauma. Some people are greatly affected and it can manifest as mental or physical concerns. In fact, trauma is stored in the brain, mind, and body and we see it expressing itself as chronic diseases.
Witnessing this merciless and unnecessary death of George Floyd, how could you not feel fear, anxiety, depression, or anger? I had patients breaking down saying, they are killing “our boys”. The vicarious trauma refers to seeing the deaths triggering some emotions in the watcher. I had to stop watching the videos that gave a bird’s eye of the crime from different vantage points. I was really done when I saw the paramedics just roll him over like a log and heave him into the ambulance.
When an injustice occurs to a person that looks like you the vicarious trauma effects are even greater/stronger. Black people are much more likely to experience severe psychological distress after witnessing such brutality. Again, it brings my mind back to slavery days when brutal beatings or killings were perpetrated and other slaves were forced to watch.
Tips for Thriving and Surviving Through These Harsh Times
COVID-19 is here to stay for a while. Hopefully a vaccine will be developed, but that could be 2021 or later. Protestors have done an excellent job pushing the systems to act on this century long problem of systemic racism. They are demanding change and some things are happening. However, we have only just begun on this process that promises to take a while, to reach an acceptable cure. We always wonder if the flame will continue burning bright or whether it will flicker and die out with only a few improvements. Time will tell. In the meantime, what can you do to take care of your mental health?
Here are some ideas provided by the experts, including Ms. Leavell-Bruce:
- Try grounding exercises like counting, breathing, tapping your foot on the floor
- Make time for self care- journaling( just write about what is on your mind), spa day, staycation
- Enjoy music- listen, dance, sing
- Take up a hobby or two
- Connect with your community- share with some like-minded people
- Take breaks from social media or T.V. news
- Get enough sleep, 7-8 hours
- Take care of your body- exercise, healthy eating
- Spend time with family and friends
- Attend professional therapy sessions with affinity groups, or one-on-one
- Yoga – has been shown to be helpful when dealing with trauma
- Create a work life balance. Do not be a workaholic.
What will you do to ease the stresses?
Dr. Rheeda Walker Says…
I also wanted to share a resource that I stumbled upon, to help in these trying times. Dr. Rheeda Walker, released her book this year entitled, Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. In the foreword to her book, Dr. Na’im Akbar describes the feeling you get when reading the book. “It was like sitting on the front porch drinking sweet tea with multiple generations of family/friends talking about mental stuff….”
Talking about mental stuff! This has to become a social norm for Black people and the rest of the U.S. for that matter. With so many stressful things going on we can’t just let it fester within.
“Scientists can say that racism is bad for Black mental health.”Dr. Walker
I enjoyed reading this book while drinking some sweet, peach tea. Dr. Walker has a lot to share in her book, here’s just few of the suggestions she mentions:
- Call in Black– take time off if you are overwhelmed, stressed with what’s going on around you. Don’t save your sick leave for a rainy day. The stress of being Black can be a legitimate reason. I need to comply with this suggestion.
- Breathing exercises- she says that you already breathe, just breathe deeper. She feels that breathing deep is one of the simplest, most important things you can do to increase your psychological fortitude. Make sure you are breathing deep from your belly.
- Be okay with saying No. As I heard on one webinar, “no is a complete sentence!”
- Pray in earnest in combination with some of the other measures, and be patient for an answer.
Be in Control
Sometimes it really seems hard to breathe with COVID-19 and the rest. But, control what you can. Review the tips provided. Try some of these measures. Also remember to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and practice good handwashing. If you don’t need to go out just avoid crowds altogether. Do not use the U.S. President as an example of how to stay safe. He doesn’t wear masks or comply with any of the other recommendations from Dr. Fauci or any other medical professional.
Will the outcome of the November election affect our health and wellbeing?
Anyway, the time is right to work on your mind, body, and soul. This will insure that you are always ready for the fight. We must fight for our lives as a community. We have so much to give to the world.
Take out your crystal teacup—-Will America get it right this time when it comes to systemic racism and social justice? Let me know what you think!