The Labyrinth of Isolation: The Compounding Impact of the Pandemic on African American/ Black Mental Health

October 28, 2020

By: Josephine Akingbulu, BA, MPH, Jamar Stevenson, BA, Kaosoluchi Enendu, BS

This post is one of a series of mental health pieces from the AMSA WSL Committee.

Approximately 42 million people in the United States of America identify as Black. That is about 13.2% of the total population which is comprised of African American, as well as African and Caribbean immigrants. As such, there are major differences in the rates of treatment, diagnosis, and access to care among this group of people. The detrimental psycho-physiological impacts of these differences can be attributed to historical, infrastructural, and socioeconomic adversity which has ultimately led to mental health disparities in the African American/ Black (AA/B) community. 


AA/B people are more frequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and less frequently diagnosed with mood disorders than their white counterparts. Given that the criteria for diagnosis can be subjective, it is important to understand how culture impacts the perception and stigmatization of certain symptoms. The AA/B community are also less likely to be offered psychotherapy and are more likely to be incarcerated due to mental illness in comparison to their racial counterparts.


In addition to the adversity constantly faced by this community, the current pandemic has compounded the disparity as it has presented a new reality for many. With high restrictions and mandates in place, Americans have been forced to quickly adjust mentally, physically, and emotionally to a world many have not seen before. Social distancing has created an environment where it is easy to slip into isolation and with the lack of physical interaction, individuals may find themselves exhibiting depressive symptoms, feeling increased anxiety levels, or finding it difficult to manage their mood. In addition to the aforementioned changes, education systems have switched to remote learning and thus students are studying without the support of classmates, faculty, or the usual extra curricular activities that serve as buffers for stress. The lack of job security may also contribute to the increase of societal stressors. The new reality from COVID-19 is ushering in a mental health crisis.


Marginalized groups, in particular, may perceive the pandemic as even more triggering or traumatic. Given the current social climate of this country with the recent wave of publicized murders and calls for revolution, it is important to understand how racial discrimination may increase the allostatic load of the minority population. Allostatic load is defined as the wear and tear on the body due to increased exposure to stress. Many have been affected by the pandemic physically, economically, and emotionally, however, minorities may be more susceptible to poor health outcomes due to the additive effects of race-related stressors.


Studies show that ethnic minority groups are more vulnerable to the psychological consequences of racial discrimination. Seeing that there is a positive relationship between perceived racial discrimination and depression, it is important to understand and identify these linkages in order to combat stressors. Furthermore, the lack of access and poor utilization of mental health resources only perpetuates the issue at hand.


The utilization of mental health interventions such as self-care is paramount during these unprecedented times. In literature, self-care is a coping mechanism defined as a human regulatory function necessary to maintain mental, emotional, and physical well being. Although coping mechanisms vary from person to person, social interaction through phone or video calls play a key role in better health outcomes. Utilizing healthy coping mechanisms such as yoga, cooking, walking, or even setting boundaries may aid individuals struggling to manage stress. Avoiding social isolation, while maintaining physical distancing mandates, during this time may prove beneficial for overall physiological and psychological health. Furthermore, incorporating cultural practices that encourage social relationships, self-reflection, or forms of spirituality may be effective on the individual level.