COVID-19, African Americans, mental health and the need for ‘reaching out’

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time of personal isolation and seclusion, with African Americans and those dealing with deep poverty more at risk for experiencing mental health challenges.

Dr. Rosie Phillips Davis (Courtesy photo)

“People lose jobs all the time,” said Dr. Rosie Phillips Davis, past president of the American Psychological Association. “But those living just above the poverty rate have lost jobs with food insecurity and no way to pay rent. Mental health becomes a concern when you look at the unemployment rate reaching as high as 32 percent.”

Men have been more at risk for suicide with the loss of manufacturing, coal mining jobs, the opioid crisis, and drug overdose, Davis said.

These were concerns before the pandemic, Davis said. There is a phenomenon called “death by despair,” and the heartland has been hit hard with it.

In Knox County, the Knoxville area, nine people committed suicide in a 48-hour period during the last week in March. At that time, there were only six deaths from the coronavirus. City officials could not specifically cite the pandemic as the cause, but the timing, at least, was noted.

Dr. William Young (Courtesy photo)

“The number of suicides in Knoxville, during that two-day period, was alarming,” said Dr. William Young, founder of the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference. “Life as we knew it had changed, and it changed quickly.

“There are no ‘definites’ anymore, and we don’t know for how long. I am concerned that people with undiagnosed clinical depression might be pushed to the edge. And certainly, individuals who have some mental health issues may already be on the edge.”

Jeanice White, a recovering addict who has been clean for nearly two decades, remembers vividly when she lost the will to live and decided one night to do something about it.

The pandemic could be a trigger for her, if it were not for her “relationship with the Lord,” she said.

“I had been on drugs for years,” White said. “Back then, you bought cocaine in powdered form and cooked it to make it a rock. That was ‘free-basing.’ I worked all week for years and smoked up my money on the weekend.

“I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know how to get out. So, one night, I got high, and I walked out in front of an 18-wheeler. But before I could get into its path, something slammed me to the ground. I believe it was divine intervention.”

Jeanice White: “I am working on a 500-word puzzle to occupy my mind while staying in. And I maintain an attitude of prayer.”

White went to her sister’s house and just happened to see a commercial on television about a drug rehab in Waynesboro, Tenn. White signed up, got clean and became a Christian there.

“People in my circumstance may be at risk for relapsing and entertaining thoughts of suicide. But I only look at the television for updates and then turn it off. I am working on a 500-word puzzle to occupy my mind while staying in. And I maintain an attitude of prayer.”

Michael Easterling grew up in a home where mental health was often misunderstood. His mother was diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic. He realized later what a tremendous effect her mental health would have on his life.

“My mother was medicated all the time,” Easterling said. “It made me resentful because she wasn’t the mother I needed her to be. I was withdrawn as a kid, and depressed.

“When I got to college, I experimented with drugs and promiscuous behavior. I had a lot of pent-up anger in my 20s. I lived in a high-rise and kept the window up. I would just stand there and say, ‘What if I just ended it right here?’ I had suicidal thoughts all the time.

Michael Easterling: “When this pandemic hit, I decided that my mental health had to be first priority.” (Courtesy photo)

Easterling continued, “When I moved back to Memphis, I started counseling with Dr. Young at The Healing Center. I had found a real church family. Bishop Young encouraged me to get therapy.

“So, at age 35, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had medication prescribed for it. When this pandemic hit, I decided that my mental health had to be first priority. I ordered a 90-day supply of my medication. Staying fit mentally must always be my first priority.”

In Shelby County, there has not been a spike in suicides, according to the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center. In March,2020, there were eight suicides, compared to nine in March, 2019.

“It is critical that we reach out to one another,” said Young. “Neighbors and friends who may be alone, check on them. The only way we will get through this pandemic is by sharing and caring for each other.”

Davis concurred. She said we must do more than the “frequent hand-washing and social distancing” being advised.

“Please stay in touch with one another,” Davis said. “Seek people out. Find purpose during this time by being helpful to others. We need human contact. Try to identify sources of hope and help others to do the same. Call, or text someone to check on them. You can help by calling to say, ‘Let’s pray together.’”

(For more information, call The Healing Center at: (901) 370-4673. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is: 1 (800) 273-TALK, or 1 (800) 273-8255.  Visit The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation.)

Actress Taraji P. Henson has started a campaign to help African Americans, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, access free therapy during the outbreak. Henson is operating the campaign through The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which she founded in 2018. It’s named in honor of her father, who suffered from mental health challenges after serving in the Vietnam War. (Photo: Screen capture from Instagram)

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