African-Americans, Racism, Pandemics, and Mental Health

By: Taylyn Washington-Harmon,

You could say I had gotten pretty good at navigating my blackness: I pushed myself to the edge of burnout to prove I was a “good” student, employee, and member of society. I didn’t use my cultural slang, and I did my best to not be “threatening” in any way. But on the inside, depression and anxiety ate me up, fueled by years of being pushed to the edge by societal reactions to blackness.

This past week, I was pushed to my limit. Bottling my emotions about the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery — and many, many others before them — came to a head, leading me to a loud, painful wail.

My boyfriend, who is of Mexican origin, held me as I sobbed, allowing me to feel all that I could without judgement. He admits to not understanding what life could ever be like for me as a black anxious woman, but promises to remain an ally in my daily fight against not only societal injustices, but the mental anguish it causes me, and many like me, daily.

“The killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and all of those situations add to the daily stress of African-American — because even if it’s not happening to you, you know that it could, or to someone you care about, in a way that white Americans don’t have to deal with,” says Dr. Beverly Tatum, a psychologist, former president emerita of Spelman College, and race relations expert. “Concern for your own safety is a major source of stress. Mental stress impacts physical well-being.”

Given that African Americans suffer from higher rates of pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease (and now are dying disproportionately from the COVID-19 outbreak), the additional physiological stress can’t help but their lifespans. Concerns for my own safety vary from minimizing innocent actions that others may take as threatening to avoiding any and all contact with law enforcement that could lead to my undue arrest, or even worse—my own death. It’s difficult to practice when my anxiety and hypervigilance has pushed me to burn myself out to keep up the image of the “good” black person.

For me, self-care has become practicing vulnerability: not being afraid to tell my peers, especially my white ones, when I need help or time for myself.

Isolated from the physical world by coronavirus and yet constantly in tune digitally due to the worldwide traumas that afflict others of African descent, my one hope of escaping racism was extremely short-lived. Yet another hope was born: that those in my community can use quarantine and recent world events as an opportunity to discuss how racism has shaped our mental health individually and collectively.

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