Covid-19 inequalities are having 'huge effect' on black people's mental health
Yesterday, stats from the Office for National Statistics revealed that black people are more than four times more likely to die of coronavirus that white people.
Even after adjusting the figures for age and gender, if a black person in this country falls ill with coronavirus, they are four times more likely to never make it home, to never see their family again.
These figures are astounding and devastating. They show up the deep structural, social and health inequalities in this country that are putting minority groups in grave danger.
The latest stats come after weeks of seeing disproportionate numbers of BAME key workers die on the front lines – medics, care workers, bus drivers. There have also been reports that black and Asian people have a higher risk of severe illness with coronavirus, and findings that BAME communities will be hit hardest by the financial impact of the pandemic.
For black people, these reports, studies and figures are hard to swallow. The constant stream of bad news is exhausting, demoralising and incredibly alienating.
It’s an inescapable reminder of your unequal, lesser position within society – a position that could actually risk the life of you and your loved ones.
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It’s a heavy burden to shoulder, alongside the existing strain of lockdown, isolation and the total disruption of our normal routines. And it is having a detrimental impact on the mental health of people in these communities.
Black people have told us that the emotional turmoil and stress of seeing society’s inequalities laid bare in this way, is exacerbated by the seeming lack of action. Beyond ordering a review into the coronavirus risk factors, it doesn’t feel as though much is being done to redress the imbalance in mortality figures.
Some say it feels as though the people in charge of the country are allowing this to happen through complacency and carelessness, and that is a terrifying thought.
Obi, an actor from north London, says thinking like this has been really hard on his mental health.
‘I felt the weight of it all yesterday, when I rolled over and saw the push notification on my phone saying black people are four times more likely to die of this thing,’ Obi tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It made the struggle to “keep calm and carry on” that little but harder.’
Obi is angry at the government, angry that workers once referred to as ‘low-skilled’ are still being underpaid and put at risk, but the wider reaction to the crisis is also troubling him.
‘It is not just the government,’ he explains. ‘Keir Starmer recently tweeted that “there must be a reckoning when this crisis ends”. Fine. But Keir, we are dying now.
‘Once I have lost family members it is too late for a “reckoning” to alter the government’s mindset.
‘I am young and fit. But some of my black family members are care workers and are part of those risk categories. This government has done little to reassure minority citizens that it cares about their life chances, choices and outcomes.
‘So when lockdown eases, I shan’t breathe easier. I will wish that the gratitude that has been extended to some of my “low-skilled” family members had translated into a pay rise that would make it possible for them to socially distance and reduce their risk of becoming infected.’
Jessica is a journalist with Caribbean heritage. She became very ill with coronavirus herself and is still feeling the effects.
As well as the toll it has taken on her body, this pandemic has also wreaked havoc on Jessica’s mental health.
She says that after recovering from the virus only a month ago, she was shocked and saddened to hear that black people, and black women specifically, are four times more likely to die.
‘What does that mean for our friends, family, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents?’ she asks. ‘I was very lucky to survive – others were not, and it’s been something I have struggled to come to terms with.
‘This constant reminder of the inequalities black people face in the UK feels like a heavy weight on our shoulders that we have carry around with us with no sign of relief on the horizon.
‘Boris Johnson keeps talking about the “coronavirus success” but all I keep seeing is inaction – an inaction to protect black people, and ethnic minorities.’
Jessica has struggled with anxiety and depression in the past, but she tells us she has experienced more panic attacks in the last three months than ever before.
‘Most nights I am sleepless, tossing and turning, sometimes weeping into my pillow, wondering whether my family members are safe, whether we are going to get yet another call that a relative has been taken from us,’ says Jessica.
‘This is not normal and should not be happening. Black people already carry with them the trauma of the past, and now we have to collectively carry the trauma of being ignored, yet again, during this crisis.’
Jessica says that hearing the latest figures about the risks for black Covid-19 patients made her instantly fear for her parents.
‘My heart stopped,’ she tells us. ‘I looked at my parents and just thought: “f***. I don’t want them to die.”
‘The anxiety stems from not just that we are more at risk of dying, but also the fact that I know this country won’t do anything to change that. It’s that constant feeling of being let down, disappointed and abandoned by a country that boasts about bringing people together, and yet black people are always the afterthought.
‘I’m tired, I’m exhausted, and every day I just want to cry.’
Sharnade George is a therapist and the founder of Cultureminds Therapy – a platform that helps ethnic minorities find therapists and learn more about mental health.
She says it isn’t at all surprising that black people and people of colour are reporting mental health struggles at this time. She says the latest figures about the mortality rates of black people will have a ‘massive impact’.
‘Mental health is not often spoken about within BAME communities due to many reasons including fear, worry and a lack of understanding and teaching,’ says Sharnade.
‘Culturally, this is not a topic that is often understood or even accepted. Knowing that we are more susceptible to die from such a dangerous virus, puts our entire culture in the vulnerably category, just like the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions.’
Sharnade adds that were also social distancing and a lack of normal routine will likely heighten mental illness symptoms, and make people feel more alone.
‘This will most likely increase levels of stress, worry, anxiety, difficulties sleeping, lack of appetite and fear, which will heavily impact how people think, feel and behave,’ says Sharnade.
‘Thoughts of, “what if I die from this?” will trigger feelings of worry and anxiety, which will ultimately make people question if it’s even safe to go outside to get the basic essentials needed to survive. This can also cause feelings of isolation with not having anyone to speak to express how you feel.’
Yasmin, a black mixed-race woman who lives in Hackney, knows exactly how this feels. Yasmin has bipolar disorder and ADHD, and she says reading about the racial disparities in coronavirus outcomes has exacerbated her symptoms.
‘I’m feeling quite bleak, and worried about the future,’ Yasmin tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I’m struggling with productivity and focus. I find it takes me hours to compose an email, I’m putting off things like laundry and tidying the flat, even though I’m not busy. It’s more depression than anxiety. Everything just feels hopeless.
‘I’m not really worried for me. Maybe because I don’t value my own life that much? It’s more the sense of injustice.
‘Marginalised people face enough oppression, life is difficult enough for us already – now you’re telling me that there’s a virus threatening to kill us disproportionately? It’s exasperating.’
Yasmin adds that the isolation has been hard on her mental health. She tells us she’s an extrovert and thrives on human company.
‘It’s been a long time since I spent quality time with someone in real life. At this point, I’m more concerned about my mental health than my physical health.
‘In Hackney where I live, my psychiatrist appointments have been cancelled (not rescheduled) and that’s been hard too.’
Jade, a black producer living in London, says the empathy and outpouring of gratitude for NHS workers and key-workers feels hollow, and the careless attitudes of people in power is making her feel terrified about the future.
‘I think what’s been happening has been absolutely devastating,’ says Jade. ‘It has been extremely disappointing to see the resistance of the government in being pro-active on this issue.
‘Looking forward, it is scary to think about the future. A lot of people within our community have little faith that this government will be able to keep us safe, or have our best interests at heart.
‘I come from a lineage of the Windrush generation. This country has a history of exploiting labour from abroad and discarding it when convenient. And we are seeing the same thing happen with so-called low-skilled workers now.
‘If lockdown is relaxed, I am so concerned about what the impact will be on my community. We are seeing the ways government is using policy to determine whose lives have value, who should be protected, who is expendable. It is frightening to think ahead.’
Therapist and mental health expert Sharnade, is so certain that the global pandemic could cause a cascade of mental health problems in BAME communities, she is launching a campaign to help people of colour develop strategies to cope.
‘I wanted to continue to use my platform to help instill hope and encouragement for people who maybe feeling alone during this time,’ she says. ‘I decided to contact 31 people asking them if they would like to share their tips on how they take care of their mental health.’
Sharnade is now spreading these strategies within minority communities. She thinks it is vital that mental health is not forgotten or sidelined in our response to the pandemic, particularly in marginalised groups.
‘It is vital that people from BAME communities educate themselves about mental health issues, and engage in healthy conversations with family and friends.
‘Do not be afraid to seek help and support. For anyone who maybe struggling and not knowing where to start, on my platform there are mental health stories that will to help inspire and encourage healthy conversations.’
Sharnade adds that she is also building a therapist directory for people from ethnic minorities to seek help, which will be launching in June.
The aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic will ripple through our society for many years to come, and it is the vulnerable and the marginalised who will be hit the hardest.
It’s vital that mental health is treated with as much care and consideration as physical health, because the two go hand-in-hand. And the mental well-being of people in these hardest hit communities will need the most support.
If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to someone.
Make an appointment with your GP, read NHS advice online, or contact one of the many mental health helplines.
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