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Exploring Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 on African Americans
By Gigi Crowder, Special to the Sentinel
Published March 2, 2022

As Black History Month 2022 winds down, I find myself doing a mental assessment regarding how much progress we have truly made regarding addressing health disparities, especially as it relates to mental health, which now has everyone carrying more awareness and possibly less stigma.  

I naturally think about the impact COVID-19 has had on the emotional wellness of the African American community. I ponder about the additional barriers and challenges my community will need to navigate.  

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For example, how damaging is distance learning for Black students? Will our elders thrive and get back to socializing, going to worship services, and visiting family; or will they feel more comfortable continuing to isolate? Has so much death, economic loss, and social unrest during this pandemic created an increased sense of hopelessness and despair?  

As an optimist and activist who relies heavily on my faith, I don’t allow myself to focus on the negatives very long. I prefer to spend more time considering solutions, potential opportunities and focusing on who I need to join forces with to promote improved outcomes. 

My staff and I at NAMI Contra Costa take our roles offering non-clinical supports and resources to African American communities across California to heart. We all are fully committed and strategically built strong networks and collaborate effectively with statewide cultural brokers in each county, Black faith leaders and centers/churches, athletes, entertainers and social influencers across the state and beyond.  

We closely monitor the community’s needs and respond swiftly to fill gaps and offer resources. Our team has facilitated a minimum of two targeted trainings or awareness events each month since we began doing this work. I’ve spoken on panels with Assembly members, Congressional representatives, and other elected officials at town halls to lift up the mental health needs of African Americans due to COVID-19.  

I have spoken on the radio and had the opportunity to speak at concerts, etc. My team members have participated at health fair events across the state, as well as showing up virtually or physically wherever there is an opportunity to spread the word about CalHOPE.  

The CCP staff is diverse across ages; we can offer all services in a culturally responsive manner with a primary objective to reduce the harm and prevent challenges due to the pandemic. 

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As California moves toward less restrictive protocols, I recognize it is indeed a great blessing to have NAMI CC participate as a CalHOPE Campaign subcontractor. We greatly appreciate the role we play in delivering ethnic-specific messages that reminds African Americans that because of low vaccination rates and the greater risk, they must proceed with more caution.  

We have not been able to change the minds of every Black community member who carries vaccination hesitation due to misinformation and broken trust based on past hurts.  However, we have been very successful with getting those deciding not to be vaccinated to reduce their risk of getting infected.  

We target the unsheltered and have partnered with our county supervisors and the Public Health Department and given out thousands of face masks, hand sanitizers, and even COVID-19 rapid tests. We have had CCP staff at vaccination clinics around the state with information about our ethnic-specific support groups, resources, warm line, and the CalHOPE Live Chat.  

I know that as the months move on and we forget about how we honored our African American heroes in February, our work will continue and we will stand on the shoulders of those heroes. We already see the negative impact and the statistics continue to highlight glaring disparities, such as more hospitalizations and higher death rates even for Black children, but we will adapt and develop new community-defined targeted strategies. 

My prayer is that others, especially decision-makers, will join me and take time to look at how much our program has done to reduce risk, and consider where we can be used to address other concerns faced by African Americans and others impacted by mental illness.  

NAMI CC supports the new 988 services to offer a non-police response for those experiencing a mental health emergency. Our crisis counselors are fully trained and can easily support that effort, recognizing too often that African Americans are statistically at the greatest risk when law enforcement is needed.  

At NAMI CC, we are already the trusted go-to agency for African Americans responding to those that call and understand how to triage as needed. There is no need to build a new responsive prevention system when one already exists through the culturally, ethnically and linguistically sensitive programs that CalHOPE has in place across California. 

Gigi Crowder is the executive director of NAMI Contra Costa. 

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