Take Charge of Your Health Today: Stress and COVID-19

This month, the “Take Charge of Your Health Today” page discusses stress and how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated its heavy burden. Stress is a state of mental and/or emotional strain. Stress can affect the immune, central nervous and digestive systems and overall health. The year 2020 has been a year of unforeseen challenges that surpass many of our wildest imaginings. The additional amount of stress that has weighed on so many of our shoulders for the past seven months has been almost unbearable. The COVID-19 global pandemic, murders of Black citizens by police, politics, economic losses and everyday stressors have affected our mental health. I write this Courier piece both in solidarity and with hope.

Recognizing the long-term effects the pandemic could have on Black and Brown communities, researchers like Nadine M. Melhem, PhD, MPH, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, have responded to rapidly address this crisis. A National Institutes of Health series of reports titled “Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health in Late Life” notes Black people not only have a greater number of stressful events in their lifetime compared with their white counterparts, the reactions to those stressors have a deeper psychological effect. Locally, we are witnessing how those stressors negatively affect Black and Brown communities. Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission’s “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race” report, published last fall, noted that health, education and employment opportunities and gaps, intersected with racism and sexism, contribute both to the stress and lack of coping mechanisms that lead to an overwhelmingly higher rate of disease and death for Black residents of the region. 

Black and Brown communities’ reluctance to seek mental health care is heartbreaking. Systemic barriers, like lack of access to health care, disproportionately affect the Black community, deterring us from seeking help. Five years ago, the Center on Race and Social Problems in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work noted that about half of the 14% of Black survey respondents sought help for the emotional distress and lack of emotional support they were experiencing. As highlighted during October’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, finding ways to connect and lighten the load of stress is critical.

In our communities, resilience and collaboration have been key to surviving stressful situations. It is not uncommon to see the Pittsburgh community rallying together to fill in gaps in care. In response to March’s stay-at-home order, Steel Smiling, a Pittsburgh-based mental health advocacy group, launched a free weekly mental health and wellness program. This program was developed to ensure that Pittsburghers could get the support they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While COVID-19 isolation has restricted traditional avenues of stress relief, these limitations have sparked ingenuity, and folks have responded with interactive ways to continue to engage with families and friends. Now is the time to discover new ways to release stress, as well. Activities like meditation, reducing screen time and aiming for a healthy work-life balance are just a few of the ways I practice self-care.

Stress is a normal part of life, but it’s important to know when to Take Charge of Your Health and seek help. Be sure to tune in next month as we will discuss local resilience efforts in the Pittsburgh region.

Take Charge, and take care; yours in the movement,

Esther L. Bush, President and CEO
Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh

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