A study from University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers found racial and ethnic disparities in mental health as well as mental health care during the first year of the pandemic (April 2020 to April 2021). Depression or anxiety also spiked for racial or ethnic groups when racist acts of violence against those groups seized national attention, including the murder of George Floyd.
“As someone who studies racial trauma, this is not surprising to me,” said Dr. Maryam Jernigan-Noesi, a licensed psychologist and the CEO of Jernigan & Associates Psychological and Educational Consulting LLC. “It really is hard to disentangle the onset of the pandemic with the heightened awareness and media coverage of race-related events around the same time.”
The researchers of this study found that the prevalence of people with depression or anxiety symptoms in the U.S. grew from roughly 11% of people in 2019 to almost 40% in that first year of COVID-19. But this increase was even steeper for Black, Hispanic, and Asian American people, according to the study, which is titled “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Mental Health and Mental Health Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
“We were interested in studies coming out showing that the pandemic had clearly impacted mental health in negative ways due to stresses and lack of resources,” said Dr. Mieke Beth Thomeer, an associate professor of sociology at UAB and the study’s co-author. “And the mental health impacts did not seem to be even in the population.”
According to their research, comparing 2019 to April and May 2020, the probabilities of experiencing depression and anxiety were 218% greater for white people, 280% greater for Black people, 344% greater for Hispanic people, and 560% greater for Asian American people. But the timing of these upticks also mattered.
“It’s useful to not think of these disparities as static but responsive to different events that are happening,” explained Thomeer. “We were surprised to see such a clear impact of the murder of George Floyd specifically on Black Americans—and the Atlanta shootings specifically on Asian Americans. That is something we need to pay attention to: temporal health impacts.”
Thomeer and her colleagues found that Black people in the study were the only racial or ethnic group to have a larger probability of depression or anxiety between May 28 and June 2, 2020, or around the time of George Floyd’s murder.
In addition, Asian American people were the only racial or ethnic group in the study to experience a greater probability of depression or anxiety around March 17 to 29, 2021, or when six Asian women were murdered in Georgia.
“The saying for me is racial trauma is real,” said Jernigan-Noesi. “It is a phenomenon. Societal events can not only impact individuals directly involved but the communities connected indirectly. We have known this for some time."
Dr. Rachel Donnelly, an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, has researched racial disparities around bereavement. She pointed out how there is a higher likelihood of the death of a family member in Black families than white families in the U.S. To Donnelly, this is another example of compounding racial inequities.
“We can think about these layers of bereavement when we look at the spike in mental health surrounding George Floyd’s murder,” she said, referring to the UAB study. “Those events, those traumas, are adding onto a lifetime of more exposure to grief for Black families.”
The UAB study further found Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans demonstrated higher levels of unmet mental health care needs during the pandemic compared to white participants, despite such groups experiencing the greatest surge in mental health challenges in that period.
“The pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the globe, and we’re now entering our third calendar year in it,” said Dr. Hector Adames, a professor of clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “This is not the only study that has shown a pattern that we see over and over again: how this time in the pandemic has not impacted everyone in the same way. What the pandemic has done is expose and exacerbate pre-existing inequities related to race, gender, and socioeconomic status in the U.S.”
Adames is also the co-director and co-founder of the Immigration, Critical Race, and Cultural Equity (IC-RACE) Lab, which develops models, programs, and interventions to support psychological wellness in communities of color. The lab offers open-access resources, such as a toolkit for people of color about surviving and resisting hate.
“I think we need to have everyone at colleges and universities really understand how students of color are uniquely impacted by the current events of the pandemic and the political climate of this country,” added Adames. “There are no borders when it comes to those issues and how they are impacting students of color."
The UAB study did not encompass events past April 2021. But Thomeer said this past Saturday’s racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York only underscores how violence, racism, and trauma continue to have devastating mental health consequences.
“Trying to extend this study out and think about the longer-term mental health impacts with racial disparities is important, especially in how the pandemic is not the only stressor that is still happening,” said Thomeer. “We have continued to see the shootings of unarmed Black and Hispanic people. And we have continued to see a ramping up of hate crimes and hateful rhetoric against certain racial and ethnic groups.”
Only a few miles away from the supermarket where this weekend’s massacre took place, Dr. Amy Reynolds, a professor in the department of counseling, school, and educational psychology at the University at Buffalo, reflected on this moment and what campuses can do.
“I am feeling that very acutely today sitting here probably ten miles from where the shooting was in Buffalo,” she said. “Tonight, we’re holding space for any faculty, staff, or students who want to come and just be with each other. And we don’t do that enough. Terrible things happen in this world we live in right now. Campuses are so busy going on with their regular business that they don’t stop to think about the cumulative trauma and negative impact that this family we are all a part of is experiencing.”
Reynolds additionally noted the student mental health crisis, which the pandemic has exacerbated.
“I just feel like there needs to be more humanity in this business we call higher education,” said Reynolds. “Campuses work hard to address immediate problems, but if some of these strategies aren’t integrated into the structure of the campus, they will go away after the events pass or after the struggling appears done.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.