The combined influence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the COVID-19 pandemic has led those working at academic medical centers to become more acutely aware of the consequences of racism on mental, physical, and public health. The harsh realities of growing up Black in America became vividly evident with the tragic killing of George Floyd and the societal reactions that followed. As health care workers responded to the pandemic, the deadly consequences of growing up poor and Black have been evident in hospitals every day. The BLM movement and COVID-19 pandemic have triggered substantial responses at many medical centers. True change will only come from consistent, long-term efforts and not from short-term, emotionally driven, knee-jerk responses.
Regarding mental health, the pandemic has resulted in marked increases in anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use. This is especially true in high-risk groups, including health care workers. Black Americans in particular are at high risk from the pandemic. Many are essential workers and, therefore, at increased risk for exposure to COVID-19. Many take public transportation, thus increasing exposure. Thus, limiting the ability to socially distance and increasing exposure to others. All of these stressors greatly enhance the risk of mental distress and psychiatric disorders.
Perhaps the inequities made visible by the intersection of the BLM movement and the pandemic will lead to serious consideration of better funding mechanisms for our health care system that would address the broader Mental health needs of all members of racial and society. However, true progress will require improved community outreach, diversity programs, and much-needed financial reform of our Mental and Physical healthcare system.
This column was written by Eugene Rubin, MD, Ph.D. And Charles Zorumski MD