As we head into the second year of the pandemic, it’s undeniable that the mental health of a lot of people has been affected; and because mental health and addiction are often co-occurring, the rates of substance use and overdoses have increased as well. Research has also shown that the segment of the population that is being disproportionately affected is the Black community.

Let’s be honest: mental health and/or addiction in the Black community are not welcomed diagnoses. As a Black woman working in behavioral health care, I see first-hand the aversions that many people have towards the words “mental health” and “addiction.” In addition to the stigma that exists with those two conditions in society, people with mental health issues in the Black community can also be seen by some as “crazy,” which is something no one wants attached to them, and also a significant deterrent for a lot of people to reach out for help.

There are other deterrents, though, that exist within the community: namely the systemic racism in health care and all that it entails. Historically, we’ve been subjected to treatment that is highly unethical at best, such as the Tuskegee Experiment in which African American men diagnosed with syphilis were not told nor treated. Then there’s the case of Henrietta Lacks whose cancer cells, taken and utilized without her knowledge or consent, were identified as the first immortalized human cell line. These are just a couple of examples from the past, but inequalities in treatment still exist today. For example, in a 2016 study, 50% of the medical students and residents who participated thought black people couldn’t feel pain in the same way as others because our skin is thicker and our nerve endings are less sensitive than those of other races or ethnicities. The Black maternal death rate is still the highest in the country with researchers suspecting institutional racism to be a contributing factor. And take COVID-19 – a survey found that 35% of Black adults would not take the vaccine with one respondent saying, “… I don’t trust the medical community because of mistakes in the past.”  I know that the apprehension to seeking medical care and distrust of the health care system is not something born of paranoia and delusions, and it’s something I’d like to see change.

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Right now, a lot of people are struggling with addiction and/or mental health issues that can be treated, but they don’t want to reach out. As we enter the second year of the pandemic, among other stressors, and with signs of deteriorating mental health and substance use becoming ever-apparent, it’s incumbent on us medical professionals to meet this community where they are. Here is how we do that:

  1. Educate. Educate the Black community with subject matter experts who look like them. Us Black nurses, doctors, and other medical providers have a unique understanding of other Black people’s concerns. With our medical expertise and lived experiences as Black people, we can help chip away at the distrust our people have in the medical community.
  2. Access. Provide accountability through accessibility. Once they have the information and are ready to take the steps to receive the type of care they need, we need to make sure that barriers no longer exist. Extremely long wait times, a lack of accessibility, and a lack of practicality is enough to cause people who are actually attempting to get help to stop trying entirely. If we don’t have the tools and resources to get them to an appointment, such as internet access for telehealth and scheduling, then the education we’ve provided becomes null and void.
  3. Break the stigma. At the rate the country is going, it’s very likely that things won’t be changing too much anytime soon. COVID-19 will continue to disproportionately impact the Black community and will continue to lead to substance misuse.
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Please ask for help.

I cannot stress the importance of reaching out for help for a medical condition that will progressively get worse. This is where we can use what is typically the cornerstone of our community: the church.

For many, one of the first people our problems are brought to is our Pastor. We ask for guidance and support from the church and everyone does what they can, but we need the church to further that support by pointing those struggling to the medical professionals who can provide appropriate treatment and care.

The doors to treatment centers are still open. Mental health conditions and addiction do not, and will not, cease because of a pandemic. If anything, they’ve both gotten worse. I implore everyone in the Black community to not be afraid to ask for help, there is absolutely nothing wrong in doing so; addiction and mental health conditions are health issues just as real as a broken leg – they both require the help of a professional.

I ask you to please overcome the hesitation to reach out; as a Black woman, I understand, but as a medical provider, I care and want to help.

Sharon Sabb-Oce, BSN, MBA, NE-BC
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