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Black mental health patients hit hard by COVID-19, social injustice: 'We were already at a breaking point'

Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

CHICAGO -- Dr. Brandi Jackson, a psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said the COVID-19 pandemic has been her most difficult period as a psychiatrist. With an uptick in anxiety and depression in her primarily Black clientele, she's seeing patients who have been clean for years relapsing on drugs -- and citing the coronavirus as pushing them over the line.

Health disparities were prevalent in the Black community before COVID-19. Life expectancy for residents on the North Shore was 30 years longer, on average, than that for residents of Englewood.

Suicide attempts that were self-reported by Black teens have spiked since 1991, even as their peers in other groups have experienced a downward trend or remained unchanged, according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another study found that Black teens experience several forms of racial discrimination each day, which can lead to short-term depression. All this research was conducted before the pandemic.

Now with COVID-19 hitting Black communities extra hard and the added stressor of social injustice (George Floyd, police brutality, et al.), Jackson believes we're only seeing a small fraction of what the real mental health fallout will be, especially in the Black community.

"I know there's resilience in the Black community, but this is something new for us," she said. "We were already at a breaking point, but the recent police violence is just an extra reminder of what we always knew to be present and has never gone away. That's hit me really hard."

Jackson, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush who teaches health equity and social justice, and is director of Rush's community psychiatry fellowship, spends half of her week at the hospital and the other half at Heartland Alliance Health in Englewood. Before COVID-19, she said, when she was seeing patients in person, the no-show rate was about 40% to 50%, but now clients rarely, if ever, miss appointments.

 

Dr. Olusola Ajilore, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a researcher with UIC's Center on Depression and Resilience, and licensed clinical professional counselor TeraKesha Hammond, say they, too, have seen an increase in clients calling, and even friends calling for resources. Hammond, a Chatham-based mental health professional (Ascend Counseling & Wellness, Inc.), said more Black men are seeking her help in finding a Black therapist. For clients wanting a practitioner who looks like them, Ajilore recommends going to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)'s website. It has a section dedicated to resources for the Black community. With such a small number of Black mental health professionals, he said, looking on a national scale may yield better results than having to stay local.

"I think, in Chicago, we've always been under-resourced for mental health access," Hammond said. "I think the disadvantage for Black people is that our mental health had already been compromised. You think about systemic racism and unemployment before COVID-19 happened, and now we're compounded by the pandemic."

The workload has led Jackson to take up cooking as a hobby, to maintain her own mental health. She said she's cried more than ever before, seeing her people decimated by the pandemic and what she considers a lack of the proper response from the larger medical community.

Jackson said the Trump administration was pressuring states to reopen after statistics showed that minorities were disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

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