Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
During the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered windows, indefinite cancelations, and concern for loved ones has led to mounting rates of depression and anxiety. An estimated one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness any given year. In recent months the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that nearly half of Americans expressed that the pandemic was harming their mental health.
As black and brown communities aren’t immune, in its “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know About Covid-19” weekly virtual town hall the UrbanKind Institute and 1Hood Media invited mental health professionals for a frank discussion on how the pandemic impacted mental health and how what resources were available.
For Julius Boatwright, founder and CEO of Steel Smiling, it was important to convey that everyone has mental health. More than that, Boatwright stressed that it was an untrue fallacy that black people didn’t care about their own mental health and healing.
“I’m with folks every single day from Mt. Oliver, from Allentown, from Carrick who says, ‘I care about my healing, I care about my neighbors and I want to do something about it to ensure that we have a holistic sense of mental health and wellness,” Boatwright explained.
However there are things that stand in the way of treatment, Boatwright told the panel that frequently black residents seeking mental health support can run into problems due to access. Sometimes this means limits with insurance coverage or lack of insurance all-together. Other times it means finding a provider that can understand their experiences.
“If I, as a black man, don’t see myself represented in the system of healthcare delivery, why would I want to get treatment from someone that I don’t believe understands my human experience as a person?”
A 2015 survey from the American Psychological Association found that in the U.S. only 4 percent of practicing psychologists were African-American and as a whole only 19 percent were ethnic minorities.
With regard to insurance since its launch in 2015 Boatwright’s own organization has been working to connect community members with licensed mental health practitioners. The day of the town hall Boatwright relayed a story of a person who’d been ready to seek mental health support but didn’t have insurance.
“I said we are never going to let money or insurance get in the way of particularly somebody particularly who’s black or brown getting mental health support,” Boatwright recalled. “So we do have funding available to help offset costs related to co-payments.”
In the way of coping, Boatwright encouraged viewers to allow themselves grace and explained with so much instability it was normal to feel more on edge. Although the panel explored that adults weren’t the only ones feeling distressed due to the pandemic.
“We have to understand these are children, they’re grieving the loss of routine,” Boatwright explained. “They’re grieving the loss of friendships, of not being able to celebrate these monumental moments; graduation, prom, being promoted to the next grade. These are big end of year moments that when you’re a kid these are the moments that you wait for, that you live for.”
Boatwright added it was important for adults to give freedom and space to communicate their sadness about the recent losses. Furthermore, he reminded viewers that adults model coping behavior for younger children.
Additionally, when dealing with young people who might not be adhering to social distancing guidelines Boatwright suggested approaching them from a place of empathy as opposed to anger and shame.
“It’s all about reframing it, it’s not necessarily that they’re not listening,” Boatwright explained. “It’s about how we have a conversation with them that’s from their perspective.”
Ultimately, Boatwright encouraged viewers to be “radical” allowing themselves time to rest and encouraged officials to center mental health in future policy conversations.
As a therapist, DeMarquis Clarke, founder of the Center for Recreational Change, admitted that even giving sessions from home can come with strains.
“My home used to be a place of refuge and sanctuary, now it’s where I work,” Clarke said. “I’ve even started thinking about just going into my office and still do telehealth from my office instead of being in this space.”
In that vein, Clarke encouraged viewers not to shy away from setting their own personal and professional boundaries while sheltering during the pandemic. Like Boatwright, he encouraged grace.
“This is a global pandemic, this is something that we’ve never experienced in our lives so be patient with yourself,” Clarke said. “Give yourself and your family members some space to not be perfect.”
Although the pandemic comes with a great deal of frustration in many areas, Clarke noticed that it also allowed for connection in unforeseen ways.
“It’s creating space for people to be much more open, loving,” Clarke explained. “People are reaching out to family members that they haven’t talked to in years. While it’s creating anxiety for people and causing people to feel overwhelmed, it’s also creating space for people to create connections in ways that they haven’t in years.”
He relayed a story of someone who’d told him their child had come out to them and said the time together was giving parents unprecedented chances to connect with their children.
However, Clarke acknowledged that there are still costs, specifically when it comes to grief. In his own life Clarke explained his godmother had died recently due to COVID-19, he found the virtual memorial service to be “unfulfilling.”
“It did not help me grieve or provide closure for our relationship on earth,” Clarke said.
While there are limits and disappointments that come from not being able to be with loved ones physically there were other ways to maintain relationships during the time of social distancing. But, he reminded viewers that despite conventional thinking there might not be a “normal” when the pandemic was over.
“Once this is over life will not be the same, so we cannot act as if we can go back to pre-covid [because] it won’t exist anymore,” Clarke said. “So how are we planning on existing differently moving forward in our lives?”
Clarke advised viewers to reach out to their insurance companies and that many insurance companies are waiving co-pays and to check in about if it’s HIPAA, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, compliant.
Ultimately, Clarke encouraged anyone watching to not be afraid to seek out help if they needed it.
“I implore you, go to therapy,” Clarke said. “Seek out therapists, people are doing telehealth right now. please, if you’re needing help reach out.”