As COVID-19 cases climbed last year, so too did the toll weigh heavier on Americans’ mental and emotional health, and the struggle continues. As of Feb. 1, an estimated 36.9% of Virginia adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, according to census data. 

Navigating uncertain terrain amid lingering health and safety concerns remains a challenge for many. But for marginalized groups including Black and Latino communities, the pandemic exacerbates existing mental health risks stemming from systemic societal issues they’ve faced for generations, like racial discrimination and decreased access to health care. In Charlottesville, various means of mental health support services have been created or expanded in the wake of the virus, in an effort to promote mental and emotional wellness in local communities of color. 

The Women’s Initiative, located at 101 E. High St. in Charlottesville, is a mental health services agency that serves more than 4,000 women annually. The organization offers a variety of mental health programs including individual and group counseling, social support and mind/body exercises, as well as education on topics from stress management to mindfulness to conflict resolution. The organization makes its services accessible to all women in the region, regardless of their ability to pay or if they have insurance.

Additionally, The Women’s Initiative offers culturally competent programs that focus on the unique needs of Black and Latina women in the region. “When women come to us, it is truly personal; they’re sharing their innermost thoughts with us, so we don’t take that lightly,” said Juanika Howard, MS, LMHP-E, a therapist who runs one of the organization’s Sister Circle programs, which are specifically designed for Black women.

Juanika Howard is a therapist who leads the Women’s Initiative Sister Circle program.

Howard said she witnesses “ongoing anxiety and depression related to the pandemic,” in the women she treats weekly. Black people account for nearly 15% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States, and they continue to be disproportionately negatively affected by the virus. In the Blue Ridge Health District (BRHD) – which serves more than 250,000 people in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties – Black people represent more than 20% of COVID-19 deaths and at least 31% percent of hospitalizations prompted by the virus, despite representing only about 13% of the BRHD’s total population.

“There’s also that Black women are just tired. Tired of trying to be that ‘strong Black woman,’ trying to hold it all together,” Howard said.

Researchers Kelly Yu-Hsin Liao, Meifen Wei and Mengxi Yin in 2019 linked the “Strong Black Woman” schema with “negative psychological outcomes” including “depression, anxiety and loneliness.” Howard said that these women seek solace in the Sister Circle program, a “space [where they’re allowed] to show that they’re tired, because they feel they can’t show that in their lives.”  

Sister Circle’s current offerings include social support groups that “create safe and nurturing spaces for women to heal and build community.” The Sister Circle Healing Circle meets virtually on the second and fourth Thursdays through March from  5:30 to 7 p.m.; pre-screening and registration details may be found here. Starting this Thursday, February 25, Howard will co-facilitate a daytime support group for Black women, to meet via Zoom, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. This program, like many other services at The Women’s Initiative, is free to attend, thanks to a partnership with Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital and wellness group Your Life Matters C’Ville.

One of the barriers Black and Latina women face concerning caring for their mental health is the lingering stigma present in both communities. 

“We’re constantly working to break down the stigma of ‘Black people don’t go to therapy,’ that [therapy] is something for ‘crazy’ people,” said Howard.

Ingrid Ramos, a counselor who facilitates the Bienstar and Resilience programs, agrees. Ramos’ programs address and support the mental health needs of area Latina women and are presented in both English and Spanish.

Ingrid Ramos, a counselor who facilitates the Bienstar and Resilience programs at the Women’s Initiative. Credit: Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

“There’s a huge stigma in [the] Latino community around mental health and therapy,” Ramos said. But throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, after The Women’s Initiative migrated most of their programs to a telehealth model, “we had a higher number of counseling sessions [with Latina women]. There was more consistency in how they showed up. Telehealth has allowed them to get counseling without previous barriers, like needing child care or transportation.”

Latino people are also disproportionately represented among the area’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations; Ramos said the virus continues disrupting Latina women’s lives and lifestyles. 

“Many Latino women here work in the service industry – restaurants, hotels, places” where they are in direct proximity to the public, putting them at risk for contracting the virus, Ramos said. Quitting their jobs to lessen their risk of exposure is not an option for most of these women, whose incomes support their households. “So they were trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Figuring out if they were going to have enough to eat was a huge stress.”

Ramos and Howard stand outside of The Women’s Initiative on High Street in Charlottesville. Credit: Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

Even as Virginia’s vaccination process continues, Ramos said some Latina women report more members of their families are contracting the virus, an added stressor.

“I have seen entire families, from parents to children, who have COVID or are directly impacted by it,” Ramos said.

These factors, combined with an uncertain future, “have contributed to high levels of anxiety and depression.” To counter this, Ramos and her colleagues offer regular mindfulness and support groups, in addition to resilience education programs that promote coping and stress management skills. In the spring, Bienstar will unveil a Latino leadership group, La Cultura Cura (which translates to “Culture Heals”), in partnership with Creciendo Juntos, a leading Latino advocacy and education agency. This partnership represents one of many such collaborative efforts The Women’s Initiative supports within the region, in an effort to bolster the resources and connections they can provide to the community. The organization also works with grassroots, community-based mental health advocates – like Myra Anderson, head of Brave Souls on Fire and co-founder of the #MASKUPCVILLE Initiative – in its quest to help women of color lead healthier lives. 

There are several organizations that offer mental health and wellness services to underserved, often-overlooked people in the region. The city of Charlottesville’s Home to Hope program provides group support sessions and resources to the formerly incarcerated, a means of healing the trauma often experienced or exacerbated by state-sanctioned confinement. The World Health Organization reports that “prisons are bad for mental health” for reasons including “overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude or conversely, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects … and inadequate health services, especially mental health services.” There were more than 31,000 people living in central Virginia in December 2020 who had previously served time in jail or prison and were, although free from facilities, still on probation or parole; this clarifies and contextualizes the importance of  organizations like Home to Hope and the therapeutic support services they provide to vulnerable members of society.

Common Ground Healing Arts offers a monthly yoga class for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in partnership with The Women’s Initiative and organized by Eboni Bugg, a local trauma therapist, yoga instructor and mental health advocate. The center also offers mediation sessions for people of color, led by people of color, which are accessible via Zoom every first, second and fourth Sunday monthly, 2-3:30 p.m. 

The Central Virginia Clinicians of Color Network offers an array of culturally-responsive mental health services to citizens of color in Charlottesville and the surrounding region. The Network provides Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy at no cost to people of color, treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other issues (like racism and microaggressions) they may experience. This service is held by appointment only at Jefferson School City Center; call (434) 218-0440 for more information.

“People of color, particularly African-Americans, feel the [mental health] stigma more keenly,” said Bebe Moore Campbell before her death in 2006. 

Campbell, an award-winning author, founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles chapter, a Black woman, and mother to a daughter with mental illness championed mental health care for people of color in America.

“In a race-conscious society, some don’t want to be perceived as having yet another deficit,” she said.

Through the continued work of the mental health services organizations mentioned here and emerging throughout the Piedmont region, citizens of color may access resources to help them step out of the shadow of stigma and onto a path of healing, health, and holistic wellness.

Woman looks off camera, smiling

Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis is freelance journalist with experience in broadcast, digital and print media. She is a native of Hanover County and lives in Ashland with her husband and sons.