National Crises Highlight Importance Of Mental Health Support For People Of Color

Jul 16, 2020

Protesters gather at the last remaining confederate statue in Richmond, that of Robert E. Lee.
Credit J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The pandemic.  An unemployment crisis.  Daily reckonings with police brutality and systemic racism in America....  These days, people of color are experiencing a special need for mental health care. In the next installment of our series, Mental Health Matters, WMRA’s Calvin Pynn spoke with providers in the valley about how they are addressing that need.

Darius Green defended his dissertation on race-based trauma and police violence just weeks before the killing of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis sparked nation-wide protests.

Darius Green completed the last step to earn his Doctorate in Clinical and Psychological Supervision from James Madison University -- from his bedroom -- as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed his defense online.
Credit Calvin Pynn

DR. DARIUS GREEN:  Race-based trauma is real, and it’s happening in real time, and we have an obligation and a duty to actually support people that are being affected by this and prevent it from happening in the future.

As both a Black man and a mental health professional early in his career, Green is acutely aware that ongoing racial injustice, coupled with the pandemic, is a collective traumatic experience.

GREEN: A lot of times people think in order for something to be traumatic, you have to directly experience it, but you can also vicariously experience trauma. So, just  watching something traumatic or hearing about it that can have an impact on someone, even if it's not like rising to the level of a clinical diagnosis, it's still can impact someone's daily life.

The renewed focus on police brutality has inflamed an already painful year for people of color. The Virginia Department of Health reports that out of the state’s 1,870* (as of mid-July, that number had exceeded 2,000)  COVID-related deaths, 24.4 percent have been Black and 11.5 percent have been Latino – as both ethnicities represent a greater percentage of the death rate than they do in Virginia’s population.

Those marginalized communities have been especially vulnerable during the pandemic.  Black and Latino communities are at greater risk from possible underlying health conditions, and a disproportionate number of them work in essential -- and often lower-paying -- jobs that place them at higher risk of infection. The pandemic’s consequential stressors such as job loss, financial insecurity and social isolation have had psychological effects as well.

GREEN: In general, it seems to result in like a lot of anxiety and fear and worry about how we're going to adjust to life. For those who maybe lost a job, are we gonna have enough money if this pandemic continues on? If people of color are overrepresented in this group of people who live under the poverty line, they’re also going to have this extra burden of stress in how they are going to weather this storm.

Providers who work with the ARROW Project – it stands for Augusta Resources for Resilience, Opportunity, and Wellness – have seen that impact as they work to extend access to mental health care to marginalized communities in Augusta County. When the pandemic hit the area in March, the everyday pressures of home and work life increased, and many of ARROW's clients put their mental health care on the backburner.

Sabrina Burress is the co-founder and executive director of the ARROW Project.
Credit Calvin Pynn

SABRINA BURRESS: There was a lack of urgency I think around counseling because folks were, like, ‘well I gotta figure out how to feed my family, and make sure I have enough toilet paper, and you know understand what’s happening in the larger picture of things, what’s the pandemic going to do to our lives?’

Sabrina Burress is the co-founder and executive director of the ARROW Project.  When the pandemic began, the number of clients decreased to three or fewer referrals per week, but as the months passed and the number of COVID-19 cases surged, Burress said referrals also surged to five to seven per week.

BURRESS: Five to seven referrals is amazing because I think folks are starting to recognize that we need some support to get through this.

Another issue complicates therapy for people of color -- a lack of mental health providers of color in the Valley. According to data from the American Psychological Association, less than two percent of their members are Black or African American.

Community Health Needs Assessments conducted by both Sentara RMH and Augusta Health have also shown a need in the Valley for better access to mental health care and a culturally-attuned focus on trauma. Charles Shepard, the ARROW Project’s co-founder, said it’s been a priority to hire a diverse clinical staff.

Charles Shepard is co-founder of the ARROW Project.
Credit Charles Shepard

CHARLES SHEPARD: We want clients in our area to have the opportunity to speak with somebody who is more likely to have a similar lived experience to them, to look like them, to talk like them. That eases all sorts of pressures. 

Aside from social stigmas surrounding mental health care, Darius Green said that it’s important for people of color to have access to counselors who understand their client’s experience and don’t require the full context.

GREEN: Some people of color don’t want to have to retell every single aspect of their experience, they don’t want to have to have to explain what racism is on an interpersonal and systemic level.

Burress described recent events – especially greater national attention to police killings of Black people -- as the reopening of a gaping wound.  As both a counselor and a Black woman, she has advised her clients to not completely shoulder the burden of addressing racism.

BURRESS: In this moment, it’s so heavy and you can’t turn away from it, so what we are telling our clients - particularly clients of color – is that it’s okay to not be okay, and to ask for moments of rest, and to not feel burdened, with teaching those around us – particularly our white allies who want to learn and do better. It’s okay to say I’m not able to teach you this right now, because we are experiencing our own trauma surrounding this.