Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and all of the changes that happened as a result of the pandemic, there remains a constant loop of racial injustices.

News, Your Health | one year ago

"The Black Community is Always in a Pandemic": How to Cope with Mental Health During this Time

Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and all of the changes that happened as a result of the pandemic, there remains a constant loop of racial injustices. From the fear of deportation among some immigrant communities, to the degradation of the Asian community following the outbreak of COVID-19, to the images on television of black men being killed, the impacts of these traumas on the mental health of communities of color is an area of serious concern. So how do we respond and take control of our mental health?

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of our lives. Some of us have lost jobs and people we love. Others have had to cancel wedding and travel plans. While everyone’s life has changed in some way, it’s the black community that is truly in a state of emergency with both the pandemic and heavy emotions following the most recent incidents of racial injustice (Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper - also known as the New York birdwatcher, and George Floyd). All of these incidents perpetuate the notion that people of color live in a state of unrest.

Dr. Russell Hancock speaks on topic of mental health for the black community

Before this year, there was already a mental health crisis in the black community and communities of color. So how do we respond and help now? What can we do to combat the trauma and help this community heal mentally and emotionally? Let's dive in with Russell Hancock, PhD, a psychotherapist at Atrium Health, who can speak both personally and professionally as a black male.

Recognizing the impact of COVID-19 and racial injustice

Never before has such a medical pandemic like COVID-19 happened in this way, and while we keep hearing that we’re all in this together, it’s also true that everyone on the planet is being affected in different ways – especially people in black communities.

"African Americans are always in a state of a pandemic," says Dr. Hancock. "You have high unemployment, a long history of racial injustices, this new COVID pandemic, and then you have a pandemic where there is no clear message. And this all becomes confusing for people."

Marginalized groups, especially people of color and/or low incomes, who don’t have full access to healthcare or a way to voice their concerns, are not being treated at the same rate nor provided the same care, simply because they may not have the resources to know where to get tested or find treatment. And experiencing all that during a pandemic can cause or reinforce trauma. "When someone asks me how am I doing, my honest answer is numb, disheartened, perplexed, and confused. I constantly look around and question how did we get to this place and why are people behaving in the manners they are."

People are also struggling with all of the day-to-day safety precautions we now have to consider, like navigating social distancing, face coverings, where to get essential items, how to find enjoyment and maintain a positive outlook.

And on top of coping with COVID-19, there remains uncertain times where the value of a black life or that of someone of color is questioned. Are people of color valued and if so, how? It’s important to note here that black communities have had years and years of racial injustices -- the video footage of George Floyd’s death was the tip of the iceberg that ignited the public outcry of deep emotions for many people who have faced their own personal experiences fighting racial injustices that they had been carrying through the years.

"The mental state of the black community is FRAGILE. That is not a diagnosis -- that is a characterization," says Dr. Hancock.

The depth of what we’re going through can overtake us emotionally. So, it’s vital that we emotionally pace ourselves and accept that our lives have changed and may not look the way they once did.

Everyone’s experience is unique, especially when it comes to mental health

Change can bring about anxiety, stress, depression and even trauma. It is important to recognize that these times can be and are traumatic for many. According to Dr. Hancock people interpret trauma differently. "Part of what is taking place is that COVID is a constant reminder of how our lives have changed and the fact the narrative keeps changing, is a daily traumatic event for all of us. Add to that, the murders of black people retraumatizes people of color and what I am most concerned about is the long-term effects and the mental anguish that will remain.

Many of us have experienced big changes at certain phases of our lives, like losing a job or a loved one. While that may not make it easier to mourn that kind of loss, it is somewhat familiar territory. But the more subtle changes, like not being able to workout at the gym or meet up with friends, can throw us off to a surprising degree.

What we’re experiencing as a result of COVID-19 is a reduction in the amount of activities that were once our norm. And that can be significant if we allow it to be.

"We must emotionally pace ourselves and accept that our lives are now different," says Dr. Hancock. "We need to get creative and develop new strategies for self-fulfillment."

It’s also important to realize that on a basic level anxiety is about uncertainty and a need for control. If we take a step back and think about what we’ve endured for over the past few months, it’s all about uncertainty – the virus, racial inequality/profiling, a return to normalcy – as well as control – ‘when can I do what I want’ versus following the guidelines or ‘how can I peacefully be heard and make a difference in the black community.’

"I don’t know that any of us are able to really let go of control," says Dr. Hancock. "We need control in our lives to function for different reasons, but what we can do is manage our need for control in a different way."

Coping with anxiety and stress

It’s enormously important to remember what brings you pleasure and figure out how to incorporate those things into your new normal during COVID and finding yourself calm yet constructive during these emotional times amid racial injustices. Whether that’s exercise, photography or meditation – you need to spend time doing what makes you feel good. And most of us now have more free time, so we should make the most of it.

"I’m also a huge fan of journaling and using your time to get clarity on various areas of our lives," says Dr. Hancock. "I would hate for people to focus so much on the crisis of COVID and societal issues that they’re unable to take a step back and look for new meaning in their life."

On the topic of the black community’s response to racial injustices, Dr. Hancock had one piece of advice that he stresses to the public:

"Allow others to speak their minds and feelings and listen to them. Also get involved and in action -- whether that's joining a peaceful protest, signing petitions, or writing government officials letters to feel like you're doing something to combat the problem."

When should you seek help from a mental health expert?

"At Atrium Health, we want the community to know we stand with you, for you and will be there anytime you need us. You are the reason why we’re here," says Dr. Hancock.

You should seek help if:

  • You need an outlet and some objectivity.
  • You’re using vices, like drinking alcohol, to an extreme to cope with depression or anxiety
  • You’ve thought about hurting yourself or others


If you or a loved one is in need of assistance, Atrium Health's Behavioral Health line is available 24/7 at 704-444-2400.