African-Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and the pandemic has heightened fear for many communities that are already inundated with other hardships. In this interview, Dr. Rodlescia Sneed shares her research on the topic.
Dr. Rodlescia Sneed is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine, Division of Public Health in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University. Dr. Sneed is a social and health psychologist interested in the interactions between the social environment, stress, and physical health outcomes across the lifespan. She has a particular interest in vulnerable populations, including older adults, racial/ethnic minorities, and the economically disadvantaged.
Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?
Rodlescia Sneed: I am a community-engaged researcher with an interest in promoting health equity through community-based participatory research. My work is centered in Flint, Michigan, a city that is more than 50 percent African American. Since 2017, I have been heavily involved in physical and mental health interventions focused on Flint's African American community. When COVID-19 started, we were in the middle of a large randomized trial and several smaller research projects. So, naturally, we engaged our research participants right away to understand what the pandemic meant for them.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
RS: We were particularly interested in understanding the social and psychological impact of the pandemic within African American communities in Michigan. To do this, we did a lot of listening, asking questions where appropriate. When the pandemic started, my academic unit started several initiatives to provide support and information to community members. We started to host ongoing virtual discussions with local church leaders to assess what was going well and what support the faith community needed. Some of my colleagues and community partners host a weekly support group that is designed specifically to address mental health concerns for youth and families. Additionally, because of our ongoing relationships with community partners, we engaged them right away to get their insights on what was happening “on the ground.”
JA: What did you discover in your study?
RS: We discovered that there was a lot of fear in the community. Residents feared getting the phone call that a loved one had passed away due to COVID-19. Several church and community leaders died early on, so in addition to losing individual lives, the community also lost change agents and activists. In the early weeks of the pandemic, testing and treatment options were limited, so people feared that they would be turned away from testing and treatment centers due to racial bias. Fear of racial bias in healthcare is a real concern for African Americans, and the pandemic amplified those fears. We also learned that the pandemic is just one more thing in the lives of people who are already experiencing significant distress. The Flint water crisis started in 2014, and many people still do not have clean water readily available. People still stand in line at water distribution centers, pandemic or not. The pandemic has made it harder to procure resources that were already difficult to access.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
RS: People need mental health support and really appreciate getting it, especially when they can do so without seeing a traditional mental health provider. Our community-based efforts to promote mental health have been successful, largely because people are able to get support in the places where they are most comfortable. We have organized large efforts to promote stress and trauma management in community settings. People need safety when seeking support, so we try to reach them in spaces where they already feel safe. This means arming the people who serve them every day with the tools to provide support and encouraging community partners to seek additional resources when individuals’ needs go beyond their own capabilities. Service providers especially appreciate support. They take care of everyone else, but often don’t have anyone to take care of them.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?
RS: I encourage those who traditionally take care of others to be sure that they care for themselves, too. COVID-19 has touched everyone, even the people who traditionally seem to be strong. Community leaders and caretakers have limitations just like everyone else. It’s important to take breaks from “doing the work.” It’s okay to seek support if you need it.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?
RS: Check in on the people you care about, especially those who are dealing with grief or feeling lonely. People who live alone may not have regular contact with other people under current conditions. Those who have had to bury a loved one during all this have experienced trauma from not being able to engage in their usual family funeral traditions. Reach out to them. Ask them what they need. Leave dinner for them on the porch. For those that have a good working knowledge of the science of COVID-19, share it freely with those around you.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
RS: Our team is committed to work that supports COVID-19 knowledge while also attending to community stress and trauma. We have been holding virtual chats with community members since the pandemic started. We’ve talked about things like managing stress, managing grief and loss, seeking care for ongoing chronic health conditions, and going back to school during the pandemic. We’ve invited community experts to come in and talk about these issues. The pandemic has brought new stress to our community, but our community has already endured ongoing community-wide trauma due to the Flint Water crisis and other community-level stressors. We continue to do work that engages community partners in trauma-informed practices that promote resilience and recovery from trauma. We train community leaders in evidence-informed practices designed to mitigate the impact of stress and trauma. We are evaluating the impact of this work on both individual and community-level outcomes.
Sneed, R. S., Key, K., Bailey, S., & Johnson-Lawrence, V. (2020). Social and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in African-American communities: Lessons from Michigan. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 446-448.