By Dr. Florence Saint Jean and Josue Pierre
Among the many COVID-19 related issues facing New Yorkers, mental health is a widespread and underreported -- a challenge that will impact us well into the future.
With so much stigma against proper mental health care, especially in many immigrant communities, our City government must address the present and future mental health impacts for every resident, from essential workers to recovering patients, to students in our schools, to everyday people traumatized by the experience of a once-in-a-century global pandemic. If we do not act, New York City will be heading towards long-term PTSD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops after an individual experiences physical or psychological trauma. Symptoms, which can include insomnia or nightmares, avoiding reminders of the incident, anxiety or depression, shock, denial, or disbelief can last for months or even years.
Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves a person feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic. It's not the objective facts but an individual's subjective emotional experience that determines whether an event is traumatic. The more frightened and helpless one feels, the more likely they are to be traumatized.
Two people exposed to the same traumatic experience may respond in remarkably different ways — for example, one may exhibit only mild, transient symptoms, whereas the other may develop a full-blown stress disorder that endures for months or years. In the aftermath of COVID-19, our brains and bodies will have reacted to the trauma, but as the number of cases begins to decline in NYC, the associated trauma does not magically go away.
Across the country, Black and Latino residents are three times as likely to become infected than their white neighbors. Early on in the pandemic, Black and Latino New Yorkers were dying at twice the rate of their white and Asian counterparts. Across the city, many families of victims are experiencing unresolved trauma.
For those who were already dealing with untreated mental health conditions, the recent stress has only exacerbated their symptoms.
Although NYC has established new resources for COVID-19 mental health support — these resources do not adequately tackle the multilayered issues of Black folks and immigrant communities, and how they access treatment. To overcome social stigmas against mental health care and get Black folks into treatment requires very strategic models and plans.
One starting point for our City is creating a plan for providing resources, education, and counseling to our frontline and essential workers—many of whom are Black folks. Bus drivers and subway operators, nurses and medical workers, and many others are doing an enormous amount of emotional labor right now just keeping the city running.
New York City must also fund school wellness counselors so that every student has the access to the resources they need. Given the shift to remote learning, we must promote telehealth initiatives so that students can receive counseling remotely.
And just as the City is running ads to encourage people to get tested and vaccinated, they should launch a public education campaign to encourage people to recognize the symptoms of PTSD and seek out and get treatment if necessary.
What is certain is that doing nothing cannot be an option moving forward. Black communities and people of color are disproportionately suffering from this pandemic. We must therefore create policies that address Black mental health specifically and provide funding for grassroots, culturally-responsive organizations doing on-the-ground work.