A Hidden Pandemic: Mourning in the African-American Community

Charonda Johnson, a 39-year-old African-American veteran, struggled to grieve after her father died unexpectedly from COVID-19 at the age of 62.

“I never really thought about my dad dying,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t process that thought. It literally sent me into hyperventilation.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she wasn’t even allowed at his bedside.

“He died alone,” Johnson said. “An inhumane way to die.”

With so many families losing loved ones, health experts are warning of a potential crisis in the African-American community: prolonged grief disorder.

Prolonged grief disorder is a medical condition in which the symptoms of grief last longer than 12 months. Without treatment, the disease may persist indefinitely and new symptoms may appear.

“It is a precursor to depression, substance use disorders, physical illnesses, especially heart disease and immune system-related illnesses, and cancer,” Dr. M. Katherine Shear said. , professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Complicated Grievance at the Columbia School. social work.

According to a study published in the Journal of Death and Dying, African Americans are more likely to experience prolonged grief. However, they are less likely to seek treatment due to cultural stigma and systemic barriers to care, experts say.

“There are unique stressors that affect mental health that black Americans have faced during the pandemic that other groups don’t have to the same degree,” said emergency physician and contributor Dr. Uche Blackstock. Yahoo News.

And with restrictions on funerals and gatherings, the bereavement has been anything but normal.

With “people not being able to access the mental health services they need to properly grieve,” Blackstock said, “we’re likely to see higher rates of anxiety and depression in black communities.”

“What we see in this pandemic is just an amplification of what has always been there in black communities in terms of pre-existing inequalities,” Blackstock said.

Experts say structural racism is a major stressor, which can also negatively impact a person’s health.

“Discrimination spans multiple sectors of health care, education, housing, the criminal justice system and toxic stress – this allostatic load lowers the immune system,” said Dr Stephanie Mayfield Gibson, director of the ‘US COVID-19 Response Initiative for Resolve to Save Lives.

“As someone who has lost loved ones to COVID and as an African American, I can say it is devastating to the community to see this disproportionate impact,” Mayfield Gibson said.

At Columbia’s Center for Complicated Grief, Shear has set up a program for families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

The program, Shear said, “aims to help people come to terms with a loss, which requires accepting the reality of the loss, all the changes it brings to one’s life, and accepting the grief in your life because it doesn’t go away completely. ”

Some experts also say that dealing with prolonged grief disorder involves tackling discrimination and racism head-on. Blackstock said she believes governments and policymakers also play a key role.

“We really need to think about policies that will focus on getting resources back into black communities because essentially our communities have been underfunded and exploited for decades due to federal politics,” Blackstock said.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California surgeon general, said one of her main agenda items is to train health care providers to be aware of how structural racism affects health.

“We have trained over 15,000 healthcare providers on how to screen for negative childhood experiences, how to recognize biological health conditions from our response to toxic stress, and then how to respond with evidence-based care,” Harris said.

And in the meantime, experts urge to take care of yourself.

“Self-care isn’t selfish,” Harris said. “It is absolutely essential for us to practice self-care at this time. This includes exercising regularly, nourishing our bodies with good nutrition, having good sleep hygiene, connecting with trusted relationships, mindfulness and meditation, and connecting with nature.

Johnson continues to remember his father and grieve one day at a time. She was able to hold a small socially distanced memorial service with her family at Dover Air Force Base.

Mishal Reja, MD is a new gastroenterology fellow at SUNY Downstate.


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