On a recent night, Waki Wynn said his wife, Traci, was so upset thinking of the current racial climate in the U.S. that she burst into tears. And then he had to comfort her, telling her things would be all right.
Watching the news of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis cop kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and other Black people who died at the hands of police, can be overwhelming, he said.
“It hasn’t become that for me, but I do know some people it has become absolutely [overwhelming]” he said.
Whenever his Black sons, 22-year-old Khari and 26-year-old Darius, leave the house, the couple worries about their sons making it back home. Dealing with stress means Wynn shuts off social media and watches an old sitcom or listens to music. Next up: He focuses on work or coaching young children to free his mind.
Since the nationwide protests began nearly a month ago after Floyd’s killing, experts have said that they’re seeing a surge in depression in the Black community. Because stress can cause a susceptibility for many diseases, mental health experts are advocating that this is a critical time to seek professional help.
Black people often are adversely affected by racism daily, which could then impact their mental health, said Gene Cash, a licensed critical social work serving as founder and CEO of Counseling Alliance of Virginia. That could be anything from racist graffiti or symbols, like Confederate statues. Black people deal with racism while grocery shopping, during doctor’s visits or on their jobs, he said.
As Black people age, that stress impacts their bodies, minds and souls, he noted.
“It’s essential for Black people to seek help and, hopefully, when they’re seeking help, they have someone who is racially aware and is sensitive to the degree of white supremacy,” he said.
Keeping the rage inside leads to mental illness and health problems, he said.
There have been some initiatives to provide Black people with resources to help with mental health, including the Central Virginia Clinicians of Color Network that’s bringing mental health professionals to the area. But there could be more done, Cash explained, adding that there’s a need for more licensed Black mental health professionals, among other needs.
“There’s not enough resources available,” he said.
Fear causes stress, which is linked to chronic illnesses, including cancers, heart diseases, strokes and miscarriage, said Dr. Ebony Jade Hilton, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Virginia.
The prevalence of hypertension, or high blood pressure, for Black people in America is higher than anywhere else in the world, she also said, adding Black people die at younger ages and from more severe forms of cancers.
When people have constant fear, also known as fight or flight response, they have a constant surge of adrenaline, said Hilton. Prolonged exposure to adrenaline can damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure and elevate risks of heart attacks or stroke. That impact on the health of Black people stems from their worries of police brutality, social life, among others, Hilton noted.
But then there are certainly other contributing factors to these diseases, including dieting and exercising, but to take these factors into account would be victim-blaming, said Hilton, because there are structures put into place, like the 1930s redlining.
Multiple studies and reports show food deserts in Black communities, she explained, so these people rely on corner stores or fast food restaurants for food. Considering the lack of sidewalks in many of these communities, people also are not able to exercise.
“The reason why you are obese is because you’re not eating healthy or exercising — without mentioning it was designed that way. But that’s left out, though,” she said.
A survey conducted by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that from May 28 to June 2, nearly 40% of adults in the country “had symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder.”
“For non-Hispanic Black adults and non-Hispanic Asian adults, the percentages of symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder were significantly higher for May 28-June 2 compared with May 21-26 (40.5% compared with 35.6% for non-Hispanic black adults, 34.2% compared with 27.6% for non-Hispanic Asian adults),” the survey reported.
There are many ways to support Black communities during this time. Nationally renowned psychiatrist Dion Metzger suggests that non-Black people compassionately acknowledge the killing of Black people when interacting with Black colleagues. Plus, companies can do more than releasing statements of solidarity, and actually put plans of actions on how they’re addressing racism in their workplace.
Metzger said when non-Black people don’t acknowledge the current situation, it is offensive to Black people. She has seen Black people re-examine their relationship with non-Black people due to a lack of support.
“What I’m seeing in a lot of my patients, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, they’re noticing their close friends or co-workers who they thought were close are on the opposite side,” she said, adding that they’re not seeing them as racists, but they don’t think they’re as open-minded as they think they were.
Not having the support is also a stressor, said Metzger, because they’re thinking that someone was a friend, but they think it’s OK to be killed like Floyd.
“It poses an issue in terms of how you view me,” she said.
While it would be ideal for Black people to seek professional help, they are facing several hurdles, including financial barriers and a lack of Black psychiatrists who experts say are likely to connect with other Black people. Only 6% of physicians are Black, and 3% to 4% of those identify as African American, according to Hilton.
Therapies that target mental health tend to be expensive, and 50% of Black adults are currently unemployed due to the pandemic, UVA’s Hilton explained.
“If you’re struggling to put food on the table for your family, it weighs on you not only mentally but physically,” she said.