BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Q&A with Dr. Beall-Wilkins
Q: What is the cumulative effect on mental health of COVID-19, social distancing and now the protests/riots on African-American and other BIPOC adults, both immediately and in the long term?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened longstanding ethnicity-based healthcare disparities that have resulted in disproportionate infection, morbidity and mortality rates for BIPOC adults, specifically Black Americans. Black Americans represent approximately 11.9% of the workforce, however they make up 17% of the front-line, essential workforce that is at higher risk for contracting and transmitting the virus. At a time when the pandemic has resulted in an employment loss of 17.8% among Black workers compared to 15.5% among White workers, the risk to individual health safety is compounded by the risk of occupational hazards, job loss and financial insecurity. As such, the compounded crisis of police brutality and increased social awareness of protest movements and civil unrest adds an additional layer of uncertainty, worry, fear, anger and sadness. Studies show that Black Americans are more likely to develop both physical and mental consequences to prolonged exposure to the chronic stress associated with discrimination and socioeconomic status, particularly high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, depression and anxiety . In the week following the release of the George Floyd police brutality video, the rate of Black Americans experiencing depressive or anxiety symptoms increased from 36% to 41%, and among Asian Americans, the rate jumped from 28% to 34%.
Q: Are there unique signs of mental distress in African-American and other BIPOC adults that differ from those presented by Caucasians?
A: Though various forms of mental distress are characterized and diagnosed by commonly reported symptoms and behaviors, it is not unusual for individuals to have unique experiences that don’t look or sound the same, depending on who’s experiencing them. Additionally, cultural and spiritual norms specific to certain ethnic populations can influence the ways in which we communicate our pain, worry, sadness, anger and fear to healthcare providers, which often leads to misdiagnosis and/or ineffective treatment planning for ethnic minorities. Moreover, a 2019 study conducted by Rutgers University, indicates that Black Americans with severe depression are more likely to be misdiagnosed with Schizophrenia, which reveals significant provider bias in overemphasizing psychotic symptoms compared to mood symptoms . In these instances, it appears that Black respondents’ endorsement of mistrust, hopelessness and paranoia due to extenuating sociocultural and political circumstances can result in unique clinical presentations that pose significant obstacles to understanding and healing, and that this effect is heavily influenced by the identity and implicit bias of both the patient and the provider. Ethnic minorities are also more likely to somaticize mental health symptoms, meaning they often report physical complaints like pain, fatigue or headaches, as well as sleeping difficulties as their chief complaints, rather than attributing the combination of symptoms to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. This dichotomy often leads to further limitations in access to care, weakening of trust in the healthcare system, and escalating feelings of traumatization, oppression and isolation for marginalized demographics.
Q: How can African-American and other BIPOC adults help each other process their thoughts and emotions about the general unrest in our country?
A: It’s often said that there’s strength in numbers, and this is equally true as it relates to emotional support for marginalized communities in times of social unrest and collective trauma. Generational exposure to workplace and community discrimination is a shared experience for many ethnic minorities, and this commonality may make it easier for individuals who are feeling distress to share their thoughts with friends, family and providers who have a firsthand experience with the same issues in our society and across the world. This familiarity may also reduce mistrust within the healthcare system, if BIPOC patients feel they have an opportunity to share their feelings without judgment, misdiagnosis or repetitive traumatization and discrimination. Likewise, ethnic minorities are more likely to rely on spiritual or other cultural leaders for support and guidance in times of stress or civil unrest and are more likely to benefit from clinical behavioral health services when these alternative modalities are considered and integrated as fluidly as possible.
Q: Are there unique barriers to mental health treatment for African-American and other BIPOC adults?
A: Apart from generalized limitations in access to healthcare that have been noted for Americans across the spectrum, behavioral healthcare remains out of reach for millions of people, including those who actually have healthcare coverage. Shortages in available providers, clinics and hospitals means that there are longer wait times for appointments, and fewer resources available for maintenance of chronic mental conditions. Many mental health providers have moved to cash pay only practices, and this may serve as an obstacle for people who don’t have the disposable income available to pay out of pocket for psychotherapy or medication management. Inpatient bed shortages and the lack of long-term behavioral healthcare facilities are also shown to contribute to chronic homelessness, frequent ER visits and more interactions with the criminal justice system, which has become the largest provider of mental healthcare and boarding for chronically mentally ill patients over the last few decades. Finally, stigma remains a very prominent barrier to seeking care for many ethnic minorities. In some cases individuals may fear judgment, mockery, maltreatment or discrimination due to their mental illness, while others may simply lack adequate information about the mental health field due to relatively less cultural reliance on these modalities within certain ethnic groups.
Q: What would you recommend to Caucasian individuals who want to reach out to their BIPOC friends and acquaintances and show their support, but don’t know what to say or are afraid it would not be received well?
A: In times of social division, strife and unrest, marginalized groups who are experiencing emotional distress and traumatization are likely to be concerned about safety, survival and stability. Allies and systems of support outside of ethnic peer groups can be helpful in building trust and solidarity across demographics, and this may aid in the development of healthier coping and conflict resolution strategies. It’s important that friends, family and coworkers be mindful that not every BIPOC person experiences distress or social events the same way and be open to simply listening to how the person feels first, before rushing to offer apologies or solutions that may not be indicated or helpful. MLK said that riots are the language of the unheard, and it is indeed the case that marginalized identities continue to live social and emotional experiences that so often go unnoticed, misunderstood and unaddressed by the ethnic majority. An expression of willingness to hear, care and help despite not knowing all the answers or solutions is sometimes all that’s necessary to convey empathy, sympathy and solidarity.