Most of the patients on my case load are diagnosed with anxiety and depression which have certainly gotten worse the past few months because of the two pandemics occurring simultaneously in this country.
There is the Pandemic of Covid-19
I have patients who have been worried about their family members and/or themselves contracting the Corona virus. The pandemic of Covid -19 has resulted in a major shift in how we are now interacting with each other. Everyone was in lock down. We all saw the daily news reports of the number of people being infected and number of people dying along with the photos of dead bodies in body bags and hearing how the hospitals were being overwhelmed by the numbers of folks being infected and admitted to the hospital. Clients spoke of how they could only go out for groceries, many folks could not work; schools were closed, churches and synagogues were not having any religious services, you had to stand at least 6 feet away from anyone at the store or whenever you were out in public, had to wear a mask. I had a few clients who had a family member contract the virus, couldn’t visit them because of the restrictions at the hospital and for those who passed away, there could be no funeral to say their final good byes.
In addition, some clients were fearful of contracting the virus themselves even though they would wash their hands multiple times, do social and physical distancing and wear their masks. They often felt hopeless that things would never go back to ‘normal’ and that they were unable to complete requirements for class, go to the prom, go to graduation, weddings postponed, etc, etc. Many changes and many different types of transitions occurred.
Difficulties sleeping, feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of despair, feeling helpless, obsessing over things out of their control, abusing substances were many of the symptoms folks have verbalized all of which were symptomatic of depression and anxiety while trying to adjust to a new way of living and find some sort of control over their life.
And then there was the Pandemic of Racism
Racism, police brutality and white privilege were on display with the killing of George Floyd whose neck was held by a white cop’s foot on a street pavement for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This was witnessed by millions of people throughout the world because the video was put on social media and then televised for all to see. There has been a series of murders by police and a few weeks later another killing of an unarmed Black man was shot in the back as he ran away from the police at a Wendy’s and again this was captured on video.
Racism, both individual as well as systemic, has been around for generations and many black people, as well as other people of color, have been triggered by watching these incidents occur over and over again. My black clients have been venting a lot of their anger, sadness and frustration not only about these incidents but also verbalizing the constant micro-aggressions they each have had to endure either at work, school or whenever they are out in public while shopping, at a restaurant, birding, jogging, etc. These incidents have also involved killing of black women, e.g., the EMT worker killed in her own home by 8 gunshots by police.
My African American clients have experienced vicarious tramautization and have talked of their difficulty sleeping, triggered when they see a police officer, has intense anger and rage, irritability, poor appetite, increased drinking or substance use as a way of coping, mistrust, distrust of white people or others in authority. I have had black women crying during the session saying that every time they see the videos of these black men being killed or the funerals which were also televised, they think of their family members, their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers and all had stories they wanted to share about police brutality, white supremacy and privilege and unfair treatment. Their PTSD is valid and needs to be acknowledged, validated and treated.
Black Lives Matter is not only a mantra but it is important for all folks to believe and internalize as part of making the institutional and societal change needed in this country.
Some of my White clients have also been affected by these issues and have expressed in therapy their sense of helplessness and guilt and wanting to do something concrete to make things better. I tend to do CBT and motivational interviewing modalities, suggest acupuncture for some of the physical symptoms, assist clients in behavioral techniques like thought stopping and deep breathing when finding themselves anxious.
As an African American psychologist, I have witnessed the struggle all my patients have shown regarding the elephant in the room about the incidents witnessed and their comfort level to discuss has varied. This has been particularly true with my white clients. I have tried to provide an atmosphere where clients can feel safe to discuss their feelings about all of this, validate their feelings, correct their misconceptions and try not to get triggered myself by the discussions on this traumatic life- threatening situation which is both a mental health as well as a public health issue.
In general, I validate black folks’ healthy paranoia about the police and the legal system, provide suggestions to deal and cope with their emotions around all of this, urge mindfulness, deep breathing, massage therapy, recommend books by Dr Robin DiAngelo on “White Fragility” whom I saw last Spring at MIT who “gets it” around racial issues and “How to be an Antiracist” by Dr Ibram X. Kendi whom I recently saw last week online discussing his book; he will be teaching at Boston University in the Fall.
American Psychological Association (APA) president, Sandra L Shulman, Ph.D. wrote, “We are living in a racism pandemic” 5/29/20 on its website: www.apa.org.