By: Emily Frost
It is #MentalHealthWeek, and the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is capturing headlines around the world. The United Nations has warned of a “global mental health crisis,” as the world population collectively struggles with everything from collective grief, to rising unemployment to the frustration of the ongoing lockdown restrictions.
However, as we have seen with other consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, how people experience, process, and cope with the many mental health challenges presented by the disease is often shaped by pre-existing social inequalities, most notably race and socioeconomic class.
Is the media acknowledging the diversity of experiences in their reporting on the mental health crisis?
A simple search reveals several articles covering the hundreds of thousands who are accessing suicide prevention training since the pandemic struck, or the “tsunami” of people who will inevitably need mental health support. Other articles respond to this obvious need with tips for readers to look after their own mental health, waxing eloquently over the value of green spaces, yoga, exercise and meditation, limiting exposure to information about the pandemic and connecting with loved ones.
What does this advice look like for BAME communities, who make up a staggeringly large proportion of patients hospitalized with COVID-19—largely due to the socioeconomic inequalities that make them more likely to be exposed to the pandemic in the first place? BAME communities are far less likely to have access to the green spaces that many of these articles espouse as “key” to mental health and well being. What is more, BAME communities are far more likely to be working in unstable, precarious jobs than their white counterparts, making it more difficult to shelter in place, or self-isolate when they are pressured to keep working amidst the pandemic.
“We must acknowledge the inequalities which exist in our society and not assume that everyone can access the benefits of things like green space and disposable income or job security,” said Danielle Hamm, the Associate Director of Campaigns and Policy at Rethink Mental Illness, a charity focusing on providing support to those suffering with mental illness.
As MDI has reported in the past, BAME communities—both British-born people of colour, and immigrants—are disproportionately represented among the key workers who are fighting the pandemic on the frontlines. As a result, they are far more likely to be working—in some cases, literally surrounded by the pandemic—than sheltering, due to either financial necessity or the demands of the job.
“We can see that through things like mortgage holidays which support those who own their own property and the furlough scheme which sends money directly to employers, and not employees, that those who are wealthy and control the economic system are going to be able to survive this and come out of it very well,” Guppi Bola, a public health expert and social and racial justice advocate and co-founder of Decolonising Economies and Working On Our Power told Media Diversity Institute.
The number of BAME workers on the frontlines is also a key factor contributing to the greater rate of infection, hospitalization and death in these communities. While many UK media outlets have reported the alarming statistics, such as the fact that Black people are four times more likely to die of the virus than white people, few have examined the inevitable mental health strain that this has on these communities.
“I think there is something to be said about the number of deaths in the community and how loss and grief is also playing a role in that,” Bola continued. While most media outlets have reported on the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color, few have dug deeper into what this looks like when it comes to processing these feelings of grief and fear.
“Not being able to process that loss and grief adds an additional psycho-social strain on a population.”
What is more, many of the wellness tips espoused by the media also ring hollow for BAME communities. While numerous articles have sung the praises of going outside as permitted, using green spaces, BAME communities are statistically less likely to have access to a private green space.
“Families living in flats or houses without gardens have been made to feel guilt and shame for leaving their homes,” pointed out Jen Daffin, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Psychologists for Social Change. In some cases, this has subject BAME communities to racial profiling, as seen with the first arrest under the UK government’s new Coronavirus Act 2020 when a Black woman was accused of ‘loitering’ at a train station.
“The thing we miss talking about when we talk about mental health is how psycho-social stress that comes from everyday discrimination,” Bola adds. “It weakens the immune system and weakens the body’s defence system.”
Does this kind of systemic racism actually make people more likely to get sick? A study carried out by the University of Southern California (USC) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) found that stress exposure—including, but not limited to racism and structural inequality—can impact the genes designed to fight inflammation, putting the immune system at a disadvantage at the genetic level.
In other words, the psychological impact of racism and discrimination—as well as their practical implications—could be making these communities more likely to get sick.
What can the media do to address these concerns?
“Greater media coverage of the different factors that shape our mental health could have a really positive impact on how people consider and manage their own health and wellbeing,” Hamm continued, pointing out that acknowledging these different experiences is the first step in addressing them. While some medical journals have covered this aspect, and BAME-hosted podcasts have examined some of the more personal aspects of the crisis, the mainstream media still needs to step up to accurately reporting on this aspect of the mental health crisis.
“Media representation that provides stories of solidarity, creates a sense of community for those disproportionately impacted could have a positive effect on people’s mental health,” Daffin adds.
“A positive platform that unites people to feel proud of who they are, that bring belonging and connection, as well as protection, will be a powerful antidote to the feelings of shame, fear and worthlessness associated with the pandemic.”