Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 for Black Americans

An interview with Dr. Derek Novacek on treatment and research recommendations.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Derek Novacek, used with permission
Source: Derek Novacek, used with permission

Black Americans have been disproportionately affected in certain ways by COVID-19. In this interview, Dr. Derek Novacek shares from his research on the topic.

Dr. Derek Novacek, Ph.D. is an Assistant Project Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Novacek earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Emory University. His research interests focus on addressing mental health disparities for marginalized groups including racial/ethnic minorities and those who have experienced homelessness.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Derek Novacek: I became interested in this area after reading the news stories and seeing the statistics about how the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately impacting Black Americans in terms of contraction and mortality rates. This led me to think a lot about the mental health difficulties that would arise in an already vulnerable community given the systemic inequities in our society. I believed this issue deserved attention among mental health researchers and clinicians, so I invited some of my colleagues to help write the article for publication.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

DN: Our commentary was focused on understanding the potential mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for Black Americans in the context of systemic racism and based on what we knew from other public health crises such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and prior natural disasters. In the article, we also discuss the potential barriers to the mental health needs of Black Americans including the historical mistrust of the healthcare system and lack of access to culturally competent treatments. We also share the strengths and resilience of Black Americans that mental health providers should be aware of that can be harnessed in treatment. We conclude the article with recommendations for policy as well as for frontline mental health providers and researchers working with Black Americans.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

DN: Similar to COVID-19, other epidemics and previous natural disasters show us that Black Americans end up experiencing increased psychological distress because these tragedies hit our communities doubly as hard. Despite these disadvantages, Black Americans are incredibly resilient. Historically, our communities have relied on strong social support networks and utilization of culturally sanctioned coping strategies to navigate stressful circumstances. This is true for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

In addition, as part of our review of other epidemics, I was able to learn more about the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, a federally funded comprehensive medical care program that includes supportive services like mental health for people from low-income backgrounds who are living with HIV. It is a national model and example for a similar program that should be created for survivors of COVID-19 who experience long-term health complications.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

DN: There weren’t any real surprises for us from our literature review. However, for some, it may be surprising to know that Black Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by epidemics like HIV/AIDS so unfortunately COVID-19 isn’t anything new in that way. I’m glad that because of the overlap with the Black Lives Matter movement, more people are becoming aware of how structural racism causes racial/ethnic health disparities. I hope this movement and increased awareness lead to the systemic changes needed in our country to fully mitigate these disparities.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

DN: The article was written with mental health providers and researchers in mind. I hope that our recommendations are implemented in research and practice by those whose work involves Black Americans. As providers, we need to be flexible in meeting the needs of our patients to increase trust and access.

Telehealth services have been vital to providing care during the pandemic and they must continue after it is over. Anecdotally speaking, telehealth has increased access and reduced the burden of seeking services for so many people. Maintaining telehealth options is essential for people of color who often have limited resources in seeking care.

In addition, I hope that our elected officials recognize the importance of making mental healthcare more affordable and accessible for the most marginalized in our society. Readers can also advocate and champion efforts towards a more just and equitable world.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

DN: Stay in contact with your friends, family, and loved ones during these unprecedented times. Help them get the help that they may need. We know social support promotes our emotional well-being. And make sure that you are taking care of yourself; otherwise, you are not going to be able to help others in the best way you can.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

DN: I’m continuing my program of research focused on addressing mental health disparities for racial/ethnic minorities and those who have experienced homelessness.

References

Novacek, D. M., Hampton-Anderson, J. N., Ebor, M. T., Loeb, T. B., & Wyatt, G. E. (2020). Mental health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Black Americans: Clinical and research recommendations. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 449-451.