Physical health is on everyone’s mind as the COVID-19 pandemic blazes across the globe, but mental health is also a top priority. WIth most office and classroom work being conducted virtually from home, the shelter-in-place policies that have been the order of the day since March are taking a toll on mental and emotional well-being. Not to mention being bombarded by the latest slew of attacks on Black people’s lives for nothing more than being Black.
Add to the mix that the rate of Black American COVID-19 fatality is 2.4 times that of white Americans (even higher in certain states), and you have the perfect storm of further sickness and devastation within the Black community. Grappling with anxiety, financial insecurity, and physical vulnerability, is quite a heavy burden.
To help figure out the connection between physical and mental health and to equip Black people with the necessary tools to flourish in these uncertain times, BET.com talked to psychologist Dr. Jeff Gardere (affectionately known as Dr. Jeff). You might recognize Dr. Jeff’s face from his numerous appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court. Now, for Mental Health Awareness month, he’s here to give you his expert opinion and spot-on answers to help you cope with the tough times.
Hint: It doesn’t begin with day drinking!
BET.com: What is the connection between mental health and physical health?
Dr. Jeff: We know that there is a very direct mind/body connection. If you're physically ill, it may cause you to have some mood issues where you might be depressed, where you might be anxious because of immobility, pain, fears of getting sicker or not recovering. This is also true the other way around. High stress levels can wear down the immune system and make people more susceptible to physical illness.
BET.com: As the shelter-in-place orders keep people at home for an indeterminate amount of time, what are some of the behaviors or feelings people should keep an eye on to gauge their mental/emotional health status?
Dr. Jeff: Instead of getting up at their usual time in the morning, maybe they're getting up much earlier and exhausted during the day or they're getting up later in the day than they're used to, which throws off all their activities and can increase irritability.
If they find that they're consuming more alcohol or they're hitting the comfort foods more often, these are sure signs that they have been adversely affected by the stay at home order. Also, drinking during the day should absolutely not be done. Treat your work day like you would normally if you were going to an office.
BET.com: If someone reading this suddenly recognizes these behaviors in themselves, what should they do?
Dr. Jeff: For one thing, it's important that even though we are social distancing, it doesn't mean that we have to be alone. The human connection, even if it's over social media, through telephones, or talking with people six or more feet away, is very significant and it is actually extremely helpful in bringing up your mood and keeping you connected.
The second thing is even if you don't have a regular therapist, there are so many platforms now on the internet that are at a low cost or if you have insurance, you can search your available network. Just about every provider is doing telehealth right now.
The other thing that is important is to re-establish a healthy routine in your life. For myself, I get up at six o'clock in the morning, meditation and prayer, and then 30 minutes or so of news but no more than that. Exercise is extremely important, especially for people of color, since we are more at risk for COVID-19, especially those of us who are older. And then, of course, have regular, well-portioned meals. People are going to overdo it a little bit and that's okay. Pull back on any excessive habits.
BET.com: What are some indications that children are feeling the stress of this pandemic?
Dr. Jeff: If they're absolutely not talking about what's going on in the world, that's a sure sign that they are struggling. Even very young kids are now introducing COVID-19 into their play or manifesting COVID-19 as the boogeyman, for example. They're starting to integrate this trauma in a positive way into their own psyche. They are trying to deal with it in their own way, so if they're not saying anything about it whatsoever, that could be a sign that they are repressing or maybe in denial, which is not good because it's still being processed somewhere in the unconscious.
BET.com: Since Black people have been so disproportionately impacted by COVID, how does that intersect with the stigma of seeking professional mental help?
Dr. Jeff: You have lower socio-economics, pre existing health conditions, genetics, and the exacerbation of all of those things by the availability of unequal medical treatment. We've got to be able to smash that stigma of not talking about the mental stress that we're going through, especially since we've been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. We have to use this as a rallying cry to not just get ourselves together physically to not just look at the genetic issues that plague us, but to also be able to engage in therapy, meditation, yoga and mindfulness and figure out how we can share empowerment strategies and things such as therapy.
BET.com: Do you think that the stigma against getting professional help with mental health has waned at all in the Black community over the past few years?
Dr. Jeff: We've made incredible leaps and strides as far as incorporating mental wellness and mental health and treatment into our society and our culture. The middle millennials have done a great job in making that an essential part of their lives, and those of us in older generations are now embracing that too.
BET.com: For Black men wearing masks per new rules during this pandemic, encounters with others outside of our community can have an added layer of stress. What can they do to deal with the extra anxiety placed upon them?
Dr. Jeff: Isn't that the ultimate kick in the ass? You're being encouraged to wear masks, but if you wear masks, then you may be more suspect to the general populace. Up until just a couple of days ago when [New York City] Mayor Bill DeBlasio said ‘we're not arresting people for not wearing masks or for a lack of social distancing,’ you could get arrested. Even though the burden should be on law enforcement to not profile at the end of the day, I think we, as men of color, can't trust that in anyone else's hands but our own.
When we go out and we're wearing masks, we need to be aware of our environment in every way possible. If you get into a confrontation with someone, try to talk the person down and get out of the situation as safely and quickly as possible.
BET.com: As a mental health professional, how has COVID impacted your work?
Dr. Jeff: I've never worked this hard in my life. Between public work, articles, television news, and Zoom conferences for different organizations about mental wellness during COVID-19, I’m pretty busy. And then of course I counsel patients constantly through telehealth. So that's a good thing. Even though, frankly I’m exhausted, my exercise and eating well and getting rest have maintained me through this time of being of service to others.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or mentally, speak to a counselor at the National Suicide Prevention by dialing 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to get the help you need. You can contact Dr. Jeff Gardere on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.