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How COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the mental health of racialized communities

Systemic racism within the healthcare system is compounding BIPOC mental health struggles.
January 28, 2021 12:59 p.m. EST
January 28, 2021 12:59 p.m. EST
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While we’re all aware of the harmful effects of COVID-19 on our bodies, it’s no secret that the pandemic has also taken a toll on our mental health. Though many Canadians are currently struggling with mental health issues, it’s important to understand that certain communities are more negatively impacted than others. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) face additional barriers that make it harder to cope, resulting in a much harsher impact on their mental health. Family physician Dr. Onye Nnorom explains what these barriers are and the different ways we can overcome them.

THE IMPACT OF SYSTEMIC RACISM ON MENTAL HEALTH

Members of BIPOC communities face unique challenges when it comes to mental health because of the systemic racism and discrimination they experience. Systemic racism is when laws, institutional practices or even work cultures create unfair barriers for people who are not white, whether that’s within the education system, the workplace, courts, prison, or even the boardroom.

“Take for instance someone who works really hard and is passed up for a promotion at work—for anyone, that is stressful,” explains Dr. Nnorom. “But what we find in Canada is that…the workforce is racialized with regards to opportunity.”

In Canada’s private sector, research shows that a University-educated Indigenous worker makes 44% less than their non-Indigenous co-worker. A Black person also only makes about 75 cents for every dollar a white person makes.

“Even if somebody doesn’t say or do something racist, when we look at the statistics, we see that there’s that extra burden, that extra stress based on the colour of someone’s skin,” Dr. Nnorom says. “That stress, over time, can impact somebody’s physical health or mental health.”

BARRIERS TO SEEKING CARE

Combined with this extra layer of stress are other barriers that prevent racialized people from getting the help they need. Some of these challenges are cultural, and involve a stigma around mental illness and asking for help. In other cases, racialized people are actually discriminated against when seeking medical care. Dr. Nnorom says many of her patients have experienced racism from healthcare workers in the past, receiving care she says isn’t culturally appropriate or safe.

“The people who are supposed to be caring for [racialized people] have all these stereotypes and assumptions about them,” she says. “So people often delay seeking care or avoid going to these healthcare centres because they’re afraid that they’re going to experience racism.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP?

For people working in hospitals and healthcare centres, Dr. Nnorom says the first step is to recognize that systemic racism can negatively impact a person’s mental and physical health. Making changes to internal policies, procedures and workplace cultures that will create a more inclusive environment for patients is key to making sure BIPOC get the help they need, she says. She also suggests that healthcare providers and staff undergo anti-racism and cultural safety training.

Dr. Nnorom emphasizes the need for culturally-adapted mental health resources as well. As a society, we should be embracing more cultural approaches to improving mental health, she says, like meditation, yoga and healing circles. She also explains the importance of customizing western approaches to therapy so that they are better suited to different cultures. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, is a type of talking therapy that involves improving emotional regulation. Researchers at CAMH have developed techniques adapted for specific groups, targeting problems unique to them. The goal, she says, is to make these types of services more widely available.

“Ultimately, wherever the care is located, it needs to be accessible and affordable.”

For more information, visit the COVID-19 and mental health resources page on CAMH’s website. Crisis Canada also has a list of mental health resources for marginalized communities.

When it comes to mental health, every action counts! Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 28, and help create positive change for those living with mental health issues. For every text message, mobile or long-distance call made by Bell, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for every tweet or TikTok video with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on TwitterInstagramFacebookYouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest or TikTok, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But that’s just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.