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Cavalcade of crises have people of color facing extraordinary mental health challenges

The weight of COVID-19, political unrest, ongoing protests, and racial trauma are taking a major toll on the BIPOC community. Sponsored by Premera Blue Cross.

SEATTLE — COVID-19 has been shown to disproportionately affect minority communities in the United States, and the story is no different when it comes to mental health. Coupled with the social justice protests and unrest that has engulfed the country in parallel to the coronavirus, folks in these populations have felt the toll of immense stress these last few months.

“It's having a huge impact on the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community,” said Ashley McGirt, author and mental health therapist. “It's taking a significant toll. For example, many people are experiencing anxiety, depression, and a lot of physiological symptoms. I'm seeing clients come in with things like headaches, migraines, inability to sleep, even high blood pressure and so much more. And these things are not new, it's just exacerbated now that we're experiencing so much racial unrest and daily protests.”

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The cavalcade of crises that has descended upon the populace can be crushing. These stress-inducing problems would be enough to cause mental health issues individually -- that all of them are happening at once means everything is haywire.

“So many of the things that I actually recommend as coping skills were things like going outside and taking deep breaths, so those were eliminated as the quality of the air (worsened due to the wildfires)," McGirt said. “People couldn't really go outside and go on those walks, not to mention with COVID a lot of our other coping skills like the gyms and movie theaters were closed. A lot of people are really struggling during this time to really find creative ways to actually cope and heal amidst everything that we're going through.”

All of these stresses are piling onto what people in minority communities have always faced on a regular basis – racial trauma. For therapists, it’s been a challenge to devise treatments.

“It's very different than other types of trauma,” McGirt said. “For example, as clinicians when we treat things like PTSD [...] it's under the premise that the thing actually happened one time, whereas, with racialized trauma, it's constantly happening. So we have to be creative when we're treating it.”

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Destigmatizing mental illness is a goal throughout the healthcare industry, but especially in minority communities where it may carry the extra stigma of people believing treatment isn’t available.

“There's this myth that mental health treatment isn’t available or isn’t accessible to BIPOC communities, which essentially has been the reality,” McGirt said. “We also have to recognize the inherent racism that has been embedded in the mental health system. When we look at the founding fathers (of mental health) all of these people are predominantly white male or white female and we're using their evidence-based practices to treat people of color.

“So clinicians like myself have to really get creative and applying these principles that were not made for people of color, but we're expected to treat people of color. So that's where the stigma lies and then and the black community there's the stigma, you know, just go to church just pray about it, things like that. So we have to really tackle all of these different things at a community and a cultural level.”

Part of the solution is to develop more therapists who hail from these communities, to bring their perspective to treatment.

“I see more BIPOC therapists,” McGirt said of the future. “I see therapy being more accessible and available to all. I see the stigma being removed.”

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1-800-273-TALK (8255) - TTY: 800-799-4889 or Live Online Chat.

The Way Forward: Mental Health and Well Being is sponsored by Premera Blue Cross. Segment Producer Joseph Suttner. Watch New Day Northwest 11 AM weekdays on KING 5 and streaming live on KING5.com. Contact New Day.