Life Under ‘Roni’ For Black People With Mental Health Issues
I was talking with some friends a few weeks ago during a Zoom call — a “Quarantine Colloquy” we called it — that we’d set up to catch up since we were all sheltering-in-place. One friend exasperatedly asked, “My daughter’s fourteen, and while I know that depression is par for the course for teenagers, now that we’re quarantining, how can I tell if what she’s going through is the depression she was already going through or if it’s because of Roni?” “Roni” is our nickname for the coronavirus, the virus that upended our lives in a matter of weeks. We were a small group of mostly Black, middle-aged, highly educated women — some with children, others childfree, and all with stable housing in large urban centers around the U.S. — commiserating about school shutdowns and public park closures, griping about being tethered to our computer screens to both gather information and stay connected to beloveds, concerned about the impact mass hysteria was having on our spirits, and of course, worried about toilet paper.
As a Black trauma-informed psychotherapist who has worked with other people’s children (of all ages) since the 1990s, I offered my friend a few suggestions on how to support her daughter while thinking about my current clients. While I specialize in the concerns of LGBTQI people of color and their loved ones, most of my clients are Black heterosexual and queer women and non-binary Black people. They range from folks in their twenties to women in their fifties. Some co-parent, others are considering becoming parents, and many are purposefully and blissfully childfree. During my conversation with my friends and my partner, I was reminded of how, as Malcolm X said, when white people get sick, Black people get the worse version of it. When it comes to mental health, this is also the case for Black people in the United States. I’m concerned for the Black people and their children who were struggling with mental health issues before Roni came and planted herself in the middle of our lives, so I’ve added a short list of free and low-cost resources at the end of this essay.
Before Roni (or ‘pre-Roni’), Black people were exposed to many forms of intersecting systemic oppression (racism, Islamophobia, misogynoir, sizeism, racialized ageism, ableism) that can lead to mental health challenges (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder). In addition, for those of us who are genetically predisposed to certain mental health problems like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, there is an added layer of susceptibility during this surreal time where the State’s ordered us to be socially isolated for our physical health. But what worries me the most is that because Black people are less likely to have health insurance, job security, and consistent internet access, Black people with mental health issues are less likely to have either a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist right now. It’s because of this perfect storm that I’m concerned that Roni will make things worse for Black people with mental health issues, whether they have health insurance or not.
Articles about the general impact of Roni on mental health have been published in the past month, but with a few exceptions, the majority of those that I’ve read thus far don’t focus on the unique experiences of being a Black person with mental health challenges in a country that marginalizes and stigmatizes us. Those who were struggling to manage their anxiety now have yet one more thing to be worried about, while many of those with long histories of depression are even more isolated. In keeping with how some people cope during times of disaster, people who used substances, such as weed, alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and opioids to alleviate their suffering or distract themselves from their psychic pain pre-Roni, might smoke, inject, sniff, and drink more to cope. People with histories of disordered eating may feel more out of control and either increase binge eating or severely restrict their food intake. Children and adults with repetitive, self-soothing behaviors (e.g., rocking, hair-pulling, finger nail, cuticle-biting) that typically calm them down might do them more often now.
Those like my friends and I in the Quarantine Colloquy who have stable housing and job security might have health insurance and hence, can access psychotherapy through phone sessions or online psychotherapy. However, I personally know Black people who had mental health issues pre-Roni and were homeless or were precariously housed, had no job security, and no health insurance are now having a more difficult time getting the support that they need. Both the pandemic and the way it’s been handled are causing many of us — regardless of ethnoracial background and mental health status — to feel anxious and troubled about the future, ungrounded, and confused. For Black people with mental health issues, these concerns and confusion are increased tenfold.
Fortunately, there are some creative things that Black people with mental health issues can do to help them get through this challenging time, even if they don’t have access to psychotherapy. The suggestions that follow can provide some sense of release or momentary respite from not only the pandemic, but also the emotional toll it’s taking on us and our loved ones. If you’re feeling disconnected and have the energy and motivation to do so, find ways to connect with politically or spiritually like-minded folks. For example, some folks find it helpful to talk with others about these things through a political lens, while others prefer to talk with others who share their spiritual or cultural beliefs. While doing so — whether you’re an introvert or extrovert — intentionally and selectively use social media, Slack, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts to have brief, regular group conversations. This way, socializing online might be less physically and emotionally draining for you. Some folks find that reading media websites and online journals like them, ZORA, DAME, Democracy Now, and Jacobin makes them feel less alone in the world.
In addition to talking with others, it’s vital to tend to our bodies to counteract the multiple stressors we’re all experiencing now. The more stressed we are, the more sleep we need. If at possible, make an effort to get more sleep — even if you think it’s too early to go to bed. Also, make a point to move your body daily! Whether you run, hike, practice yoga, bike, do capoeira, dance, or go for long walks/rides, commit to doing that at least once a day, every day. There’s plenty of research that shows that moving one’s body during times of stress helps alleviate it as well as improves our mood and outlook on life.
Another thing that positively changes one’s mood is making a commitment to seeking joy daily. For those struggling with depression, this might be challenging since depression makes some people more irritable or because life tends to look bleak most of the time. Try it anyway and see if it works for you. Joy looks different for each of us, so it could be making a point to listen to the birds chirping in the morning, search for at least one thing each day that brings a smile to your face, savor a warm cup of tea/kava/mocha, dance just because you can, or look at a picture of a younger version of yourself playing and remembering that joy. When we only focus on the sad, anxiety-provoking things in the world, that tends to be all that we see.
Other ways to shift one’s perspective is to seek the support of our ancestors and read about those who came before us. This could mean turning to your personal or community ancestors and asking them for guidance. If you’re an atheist or agnostic, ask yourself, “What would James Baldwin or Maya Angelou do in this moment?” Some also find comfort and grounding in building altars for their ancestors. Likewise, reading books about the battles faced by those who came before us can provide not only insight into other’s strategies during times of struggle, but also comfort and clarity. A few examples are Assata, Subterranean Fire, Detroit I Do Mind Dying, and The Black Panthers Speak. Some of these books are available online.
Thankfully, there is mental health and emotional support for Black people (of all ages) with mental health challenges in the midst of this pandemic. There are some free or low-cost lifelines available and some will continue to be offered after Roni leaves us, or ‘post-Roni’. Below is a list of national organizations and apps that can be accessed if you have a landline, a smartphone, or Wi-Fi access. Some provide professional mental health services, while others provide peer counseling and non-professional support. It’s my hope that this list can provide Black people with mental health challenges and their loved ones — like my friend and her daughter — the assistance and care they need now and post-Roni.
Trauma Recovery Network/HAP: This national network of licensed psychotherapists who are trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) provides (on average) six to ten free sessions for first responders (medical providers, firefighters, police officers). EMDR is a type of therapy “that helps people heal from trauma or other distressing life experiences. EMDR therapy has been extensively researched and has demonstrated effectiveness for trauma.”
BetterHelp: A subscription therapy service that allows you to text, chat, and speak with licensed counselors.
Mental Health Chat For Undocumented People: You need an Instagram account to access this.
Trans Lifeline: “A peer support service run by trans people, for trans and questioning callers. Our operators are located all over the U.S. and Canada, and are all trans-identified. If you are in crisis or just need someone to talk to, even if it’s just about whether or not you’re trans, please call us.”
Sheltering-in-place or being quarantined with someone who’s being abusive can make some victims desperate.These four free, confidential hotlines provide support to anyone experiencing domestic violence.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: Provides phone hotline, online chat support, and resources for victims of domestic violence. Visit the website or call 1–800–799-SAFE (7233). The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 200 languages.
National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline: This hotline has advocates available 24/7 for crisis intervention, education, information and referrals for “Deaf, Deaf/Blind, Deaf/Disabled” callers. There are online chat, video call, or email options. email@example.com or video call at 1–855–812–1001.
VIP Mujeres: Provides bilingual (Spanish/English) domestic violence support, resources, temporary shelter and legal support. Visit website or call 1–800–664–5880. Their website has a ‘safe exit’ option if you share a computer with your abuser.
The Anti-Violence Project (AVP): AVP empowers LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and supports survivors through counseling and advocacy. Visit the website or call 1–212–714–1141.