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COVID, police violence took an excessive toll on Black Americans’ psyche. Can they heal?

COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate physical toll on people of color — especially Black Americans, who are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from it than whites. Experts are now also warning of the longer-term mental health toll this last year has taken on those same communities and historical disparities it highlights. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate physical toll on people of color, especially African Americans.

    As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, experts are now warning of the longer-term mental health toll this past year has taken on those same communities, as well as the historical disparities it highlights.

    Stephanie Sy reports. It's part of our coverage of Race Matters.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Back in early January, Ajene Prince woke up in his bed in Philadelphia struggling to breathe.

  • Ajene Prince:

    I'm trying to figure out, like, how I can gasp for air. What's going to happen? Am I going to die? It's just a million things. Like, my mind is literally racing a mile a minute.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with COVID-19. Explaining what was happening to his 8-year-old daughter from his hospital bed wasn't easy.

  • Ajene Prince:

    I'm just like, this could be my last conversation that I'm going to have with her, you know? And it would be times where, like, I will be talking to her, and I will feel like the emotions catching up to me, and I would have to turn the phone because I know, like, tears is about to start flowing down on my face.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The strong emotions and stress continued, even once he'd physically recovered, a full-time job as a supervisor for a cable company, work that needs to be done in person, studies for a master's degree, and the chronic fear many Black men in America experience that was brought out when George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on video.

  • Ajene Prince:

    To watch it over and over again, it made you feel sick. It makes you want to talk to somebody. It made you, like, literally, like, cry because you just feel as though just nobody should go through that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It all weighs heavy. Prince has suffered from bouts of depression that have affected his family too.

  • Ajene Prince:

    The mental toll that it also took on me also took a huge toll on my daughter, though, too. It has been difficult to try to keep your mind at ease.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's a burden he shares with many Black Americans, and one experts are increasingly focused on.

    The last year has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color. Blacks are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it than whites. But experts say those disparities among countless others may also be having an outsized effect on Black Americans' mental health.

  • Dr. Altha Stewart, Former President, American Psychiatric Association:

    What you have is disproportionate employment in those essential work categories, which compounded any fear, anxiety and uncertainty about their own individual status, as well as the health and well-being of any family members.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Altha Stewart has been a psychiatrist for decades and was the first Black president of the American Psychiatric Association.

    She says the pandemic highlighted the lack of mental health resources for Black Americans.

  • Dr. Altha Stewart:

    There was a difference in ability to access services, in the ability to access services that we would consider to be culturally responsive to the psychological needs of African Americans.

    And then there is the general framing and infrastructure of the mental health system that was fragmented, disorganized and uncoordinated for everyone, compounded with these other things that impacted seriously access for and quality of care for Black people.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For example, the APA estimates only about 2 percent of psychiatrists are Black.

  • Michelle Parrish:

    Our race plays a huge — a huge factor in the lack of equity that we receive.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Michelle Parrish is a full-time working mother of two who lives in Washington, D.C., her son R.J. has autism and ADHD. But, early on, she says she struggled to get the right diagnosis.

  • Michelle Parrish:

    The doctor who gave my son a psychological exam many years ago was a white woman. And she was very quick to give him diagnosis like oppositional defiance and things of that nature, because he just didn't want to do it the way she wanted to do it. And she didn't even try.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And finding someone who understands the unique experiences Black Americans face in this country is another major barrier.

    For the mother of Black boys, it can be an ever-present fear of police brutality.

  • Michelle Parrish:

    Having a Black son with a disability that could potentially find themselves a target of police activity, and could find themselves a target of police activity while in crisis and — is huge, is a huge fear.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For Ajene Prince, it's decades of losing people to neighborhood violence.

  • Ajene Prince:

    I watched my best friend get killed in front of me and literally, like, die in my arms. From a two-year standpoint, back from '05. In '06, I went to over 30-plus funerals.

    None of those individuals were older, elderly individuals. Everybody was in my age bracket. What that did was it broke me and put me into a depression state. It gave me the ability of not trusting anybody, because anybody that I felt as though that I got close to died.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He also had a hard time trusting his first therapist.

  • Ajene Prince:

    I felt as though that they were listening, but not really understanding. They really didn't understand the life I live. They don't understand my cultural background. They didn't understand me.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tasnim Sulaiman is trying to help men Prince find Black therapists.

  • Tasnin Sulaiman, Black Men Heal:

    I to say that we jump-start men's healing journey.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sulaiman, a therapist herself, founded the group Black Men Heal back in 2018. The group matches a network of local providers to Black applicants. They offer up to eight free sessions of therapy and have accepted more than 200 men into the program, including Ajene Prince.

    That number has grown every year, never more so than since the pandemic.

  • Tasnim Suliaman:

    It is so unprecedented. I have been a therapist for 15, 16 years. And the past year, I had never experienced as — the volume of the amount of people that apply.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Black Men Heal also hosts weekly sessions, dubbed Kings Corner, where men from across the country can share and reflect on a host of issues, from relationships to police violence.

  • Man:

    Black men live almost under kind of — of a pseudo kind of terrorist environment.

  • Tasnim Suliaman:

    We are trying to reframe this idea around vulnerability as something weak, that it's actually a strength. And so we refer to them as kings. We refer to our men as kings. And we really honor them and normalize — and that's very important, that we really normalize their experiences in the way that they don't have to feel there's something wrong with them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But healing doesn't only come through formal therapy. To manage her emotions, Michelle Parrish took matters into her own hands.

  • Michelle Parrish:

    I needed to take back my sanity. And I knew that one of the best ways was to increase my endorphins.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Exercise, she found, increased the so-called feel-good hormone, reducing stress. She also started her own support group of Black moms of children with disabilities.

  • Michelle Parrish:

    We have yoga sessions. We have journaling sessions, and just trying to create micro-goals in amongst collective groups, so that we can powerfully pull ourselves up together.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Back in Philadelphia, Ajene Prince now understands the value of asking for help.

  • Ajene Prince:

    We're living with traumas that our parents had and our grandparents had. And now it's coming to us and we have to learn how to deal with it.

    I don't think I would have been able to really contain myself within this last year. And I truly believe that, if I didn't have a therapist and I didn't seek help when I did, it could have been a possibility that today I could have been dead or in jail.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Instead, he is showing up for himself and for those he loves.

  • Ajene Prince:

    And it's given me an opportunity of channeling with my emotions, my vulnerabilities, and just me in general and helping me break down some of the barriers that I see within myself.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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