Black Community COVID Mental Health Connection

By Dianne Anderson

For COVID survivors, adapting in the aftermath of the virus that claimed three times as many Black lives than whites, the shock to the senses was both physical and mental.

Losing so many immediate family members, young and old, took years to recover, and only recently, the community is starting to heal.

The impact was great, and in the beginning, many didn’t get to see their loved ones before they died.

“We lost a lot, quite a few people that I would consider young 40s, 50s and 60s, dying from this disease. I didn’t go to people’s houses and they didn’t come to mine. It’s getting better now, but it was very tough in our community,” said Pastor Buie with Bel-Vue Community United Presbyterian Church.

Buie, who is Los Angeles based in the Watts area, recently finished a series of mental health outreach with the G.R.E.E.N Foundation, an Orange County based nonprofit health advocate serving Southern California.

He also worked closely with the nonprofit during the pandemic at COVID sites that were issuing tests and booster shots. He had about eight pastors on his team, and said that working within church circles is important because it is often the go-to place for the community.

But he emphasized that any COVID discussion must include the mental health impact. For about a year, no vaccinations were available, and all were forced to wear masks. People lost jobs, which turned into massive housing loss, not counting the health impact for long-haul survivors.

“There was a rise in domestic violence and divorce,” he said. “The restrictions from going here or there, and remember the fear? That’s why many people became depressed, not just because of the loss of loved ones, but the thought of possibly losing their lives.”

He said outreach and the work of dedicated community members like Ernesta Wright have helped in the recovery.

“Due to the GREEN Foundation and the church in collaborating with partners, the Black community has been able to bounce back. It is a resilient community. Although devastated in some ways, it’s been able to bounce back,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, Black Women Rally for Action, reported last week was the first week since the pandemic that no Blacks died from COVID. The organization advocates that the community get their bivalent vaccines and boosters to combat the new variant.

As of June 28, the nonprofit said the Los Angeles County Public Health Department reported 155  new COVID-19 cases among Blacks over the last week, up by 30 cases. In Los Angeles County, they cited the total number of Black cases of COVID at 186,571, resulting in 3,251 deaths.

The organization commended several leaders who have stepped up at the county health department, as well as community and faith-based partners for keeping Black residents alive.

“We honor the work of the County, healthcare organizations, frontline workers, churches, and community-based organizations,” the organization said in a release.

Ernesta Wright, founder and CEO of the GREEN Foundation, said their campaign worked with the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health for 60 days, meeting weekly for structured discussions on staying mentally healthy with formal in-person trainings.

So far, she said the only negative feedback is the community wanted more of it. It wasn’t long enough.

Recent webinars have been focused on professionals and licensed family therapists talking about the mental health impact of families during COVID, and how to maintain mental wellness. Their nonprofit was able to reach over 5,000 people every week through social media and sharing slides from the health department.

“We want to normalize [discussions] and bring awareness,” she said. “It was all structured. How do we take care of our mental health? How are you able to connect with your congregation and your community, if you’re not taking care of your own?”

Kyla Stevenson, project coordinator with the GREEN Foundation, feels the community is starting to be more receptive to health information and sparking conversation and dialogue with families.

“What’s really great is that everybody is trying to check in on others, and being more open to asking for help for themselves as well,” she said.

At the same time, the need is great, and the availability of Black therapists and doctors is limited.

“It’s a little tricky because with mental health, I hear a lot of people in the community say they have a hard time finding a therapist. There are options out there. What’s available is slimmer now because it’s like everybody needs therapy,” she said.

With overwhelming demand, the community is seeking therapists they can relate to, both in race and faith.

“It’s not just not enough Black therapists, but combined with insurance issues are another factor,” she said. “And, if you are looking for a Black male therapist, definitely scarce.”

Stevenson got into healthcare awareness due to her own challenges, including lupus, hemophilia and endometriosis, diagnosed from a young age. Her young son also has a more serious form of hemophilia, a bleeding disorder.

“If you can imagine being Black, being female and age 14, and the blood disorder, I wasn’t finding the care I needed. I found myself advocating for myself,” she said.

As she’s doing outreach, it’s been important to shed light on how the community can access the best physical and mental health help resources. She tries to share her medic alert bracelet that has her conditions listed if she is ever unconscious. Straps are also available for people to put on their seat belts.

“That’s the biggest thing that I’m happy that I get to do with Ernesta is showing people where to get help and give them ideas to get the best care in life,” she said. “I think there are more things that people should be aware of what’s out there and available.”

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