NEWARK, NJ — Given the churning of the ongoing global pandemic, a shattered job market and political upheaval, it’s not surprising that many Americans are experiencing poor mental health lately. 

These conditions are especially burdensome for the Black community, according to Licensed Clinical Social Workers Ayana DaSilva and Simona Badger, who participated in a talk hosted by Newark Public Library on Wednesday. The discussion, “Black Mental Health Matters,” examined how COVID-19 and systemic racism are impacting the collective mental health of African-Americans.

DaSilva and Badger said anxiety, major depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the heightened presence of topics like police brutality have been on the rise in Black clients seeking help. 

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The clinicians specialize in culturally sensitive services that recognize the unique needs of Black men, women and children. 

“We’re seeing the worsening of mental health given the fact that so many people, especially here in Newark, were affected in some way by COVID-19,” Badger said. “I’ve also seen some obsessive-compulsive traits where people are visiting the testing sites repetitively due to the anxiety they’re experiencing.”

The city has seen upwards of 600 COVID-19 deaths and nearly 8,000 positive cases since March, making Newark the state’s virus epicenter. Across New Jersey, Black people account for more than 18% of the overall death toll from coronavirus but only about 15% of the state’s overall population. 

Badger added that although her practice is operating through telehealth, she felt compelled to start a grief group as a result of the number of clients experiencing the death of one or more loved ones due to COVID-19. Both clinicians said they have seen clients who were doing well regress or return to therapy over the past four months. 

“With the new level of isolation, I see more clients wanting to come back to therapy, which is pretty significant,” DaSilva said. “People see even more need now to maintain their mental health with all the issues — the racial unrest, and everything that’s going on in our society these days — I’m very happy to see Black individuals in particular are continuing with their treatment.” 

Many Black clients grapple with identity issues as a result of systemic racism and avoid situations that may trigger fears about racial discrimination or retaliation. DaSilva said one of her clients shared that at the age of 23, he still has not obtained a driver’s license due to anxieties about being pulled over by police. 

“Many of my clients feel that they are no different than George Floyd, that they are no different than Breonna Taylor. So they’re asking the question: Am I next?” DaSilva said. 

While racism and police brutality have been constants for Black people, reaching out for help from mental health professionals has only recently become more common in the community. 

Both DaSilva and Badger have seen an influx in referrals since the onset of COVID-19, which they believe is a result of unprecedented isolation. They remarked that historically, the support of community and family has allowed African-Americans to mentally survive slavery, Jim Crow and the byproducts of systemic racism. 

“The fact that 75% of my clients are Black is huge, because we do not typically go to therapy. We came together and drew strength within our community, our religious beliefs and our connectivity, and that still is the case,” DaSilva said. “But in my experience of working with Black individuals, I think they’re feeling more comfortable, and it’s acceptable to get help and healing for the significant levels of trauma they have been dealing with.”  

For more information and mental health resources in Essex County, click here.