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Racial Trauma Is A US Mental Health Epidemic, And Telehealth Is Needed To Address It

When the last enslaved people learned they were free in 1865, the vestiges of slavery and the trauma it inflicted on the African American community still remained — even to this day. We must acknowledge the truth, that race-based traumatic stress is a legacy of slavery and is the reason behind a mental health care epidemic in Black America. There must be a clarion cry to address this crisis by providing easily accessible and culturally competent mental health care for Black people.

Researchers at Columbia University have linked the experience of racism to negative mental health outcomes — including depression and low self-esteem. As a mental health expert who is a Black man and serves the Black community, I know the trauma of being Black in America. Over the years, I’ve seen how constant, daily stress stemming from racism adversely impacts Black people socially, educationally and occupationally. Patients have come to me discussing their painful experiences of being followed in a grocery store, getting the police called while at a bank or doing any number of mundane activities. These seemingly insignificant daily activities being interrupted by racism add an undue burden of stress to everyday life for Black people, and it accumulates.

2020 marked the highest spike in reported hate crimes since 2012, and incidents targeting people because of their race increased more than any other category, with the Black community seeing the largest increase. Just this year alone, nearly a third of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities have been targets of bomb threats. And a 2021 Gallup poll found that one in four Black people reported experiencing racial discrimination in the workplace.

These patterns persist in health care, too — and affect health outcomes. In 37 states and the District of Columbia, more than one in 500 Black residents have died of COVID-related causes — meaning the Black community is among the highest groups impacted and shoulders a staggering burden of emotional stress and grief.

When you consider the rise in racially motivated violence and police brutality against Black men and women, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community both in lives lost and the emotional trauma of grief, and the daily racist microaggressions in the workplace, you get a crushing load of stress that takes a toll in every aspect of life.

The U.S. suffers from a shortage of mental health providers, in general, and that shortage is magnified in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The racial and ethnic makeup of those providers matter too because research shows that health outcomes for Black patients improve when they are seen by Black doctors. But only 3% of U.S. psychologists are Black.

There is no easy solution to that shortfall, but I believe we have unlocked one part of the answer: telehealth.

The pandemic made telehealth a necessity, and the data on its success is undeniable. In five hospitals in Philadelphia, telehealth boosted appointment completion rates for Black patients from 52% to 70%. Kaiser Permanente found that pregnant women’s participation in a program for mental and behavioral health jumped from 30% to over 80%. 

That’s the power of telehealth — it makes Black mental health professionals accessible to neighborhoods where there are no other resources. It connects patients to culturally competent care that is trauma- and race-informed, which improves outcomes and increases trust in the health care system. It offers the privacy and convenience that can help eliminate the stigma surrounding treatment and mitigate the social determinants of health that are barriers to care such as transportation or childcare.

The real prescription is an end to racism. But as we celebrate Minority Mental Health Month this month, let us acknowledge the cost of racial trauma on individuals, families and communities — and embrace the solutions that are proving effective in treating that trauma, even as we work to prevent it. This is the time to get serious about making culturally competent mental health treatment accessible to Black communities that desperately need it.

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Dr. Jay Weems is an African American with a doctorate in clinical psychology and the Chief Mental Health Officer at MyOwnDoctor, a telehealth company focused on providing culturally specific care. Dr. Weems has over 25 years of experience working with patients in Chicago and the state of Illinois.

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