By Melissa D. Elliott, LCSW
In the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This Global Pandemic has been political, social, psychological, economic, gender, and racial warfare. As I looked at the majority of people dying in the first few months of COVID-19 reaching the county of Westchester then the shores of Manhattan and finding its way to Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, all I could think about was all the Black, Indigenous People of Color who worked minimum wage jobs that didn't have the privilege to work from home, because they were the first essential workers and the ones who contracted the virus from the individuals that travelled from Europe over the holiday break in December 2019 through February 2020. I thought about the domesticated workers, the food delivery workers, the house workers that brought the virus home unknowingly.
As I began to write this piece on Mental Health during a Global Pandemic, I was faced with my own mental health and an overwhelming sense of distress came over me. I remember it vividly, it was a windy, winter day in Lower Manhattan. It was cloudy, cold with the sun shining brightly. I was in transit going to NYU to teach seniors in my Social Work practice class. The students were both concerned about what to do next, as well as how to prepare for the impending doom, for life we knew it was coming to an end. Some students were wearing masks, while others looked on to question if the masks were necessary. What I did know for sure was that my heart was racing, my thoughts were racing, my breath was shallow and I found it hard to answer the question, should I/we continue to have class in person?
On March 13, 2020, life as we all knew it changed and we were told by our Governor Cuomo of the State of New York to shelter in place. Collectively, as New Yorkers we rushed to obtain toilet paper, lysol wipes and sprays, dettol, laundry detergent, canned goods, food, and liquor. I recalled seeing empty shelves in the supermarket and that in of itself was anxiety provoking. Would my husband and I have enough to last us through this time, how long will this last, the answers to these questions continue to arise as we move through locked down in April and May. We decided to grocery shop every one and a half months and supplement other items to amazon deliveries. We engaged in communication via facebook on the plight of Black, Indigenous People of Color at the hands of COVID-19 and we began to seek a network of black owned businesses that were taking a hit due to the pandemic.
Crisis is defined as “a perception of an event or situation as an intolerable difficulty, that exceeds the resources or coping mechanism of the person” by James and Gilliand (2001). In these times, I leaned on God, to be my refuge in times of crisis and that I knew I can hide in his ever loving almighty arms and no matter what the world was experiencing that my God would make a way for all of us, through our collective trauma and grief. I remember watching faithfully Governor Cuomo at noon calm the fears and work diligently on “flatten the curve” with his team. I checked in with family and friends intentionally and with a purpose. I tapped into my tool belt of coping strategies, which are my faith in God, keeping up with information and news and my connection with family, friends and spiritual community at Grace Church of God.
Social worker’s became the back line essential workers of the pandemic. Doctors, Nurses, EMS and other health care professionals were out on the front lines dealing with reducing the crisis and flattening the curve. Grocery and Supermarket workers, liquor stores attendants, and construction workers, were the middle line essential workers, ensuring that we all remained with the essential items to sustain us and to keep us going. Social workers were in the back keeping New York and all the other states mentally, emotionally and psychological functioning. Supporting those who wanted to give up and throw in the towel. Managing intense family conflicts, that rose to everyone being in the home. Supporting folks dealing with depression and anxiety caused by social isolation and fear of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Social workers have continuously heard the cries from those who are grieving, while they themselves have been grieving the loss of loved ones and holding the space for others to BE.
Social workers have heard the anxiety of doctors and nurses and other health care professionals who struggle with sleep deprivation, burnout, vicarious and persistent trauma of seeing endless people dying over a course of several months. It felt unbearable and unmanageable. Some questioned whether this job was for them, others walked off, others died and others committed suicide. The level of intensity of being at the front lines of this pandemic was unimaginable. If you had pre-existing mental health illnesses the pandemic of COVID-19 could have and can definitely worsen your current mental health conditions drastically. It was notable in a prevalence of poor sleep due to increased hours or insomnia due to thoughts about your experiences of the day. An increase in fear of contracting and spreading the virus to loved ones and the social isolation that occurred to prevent loved ones from contracting was immensely hard to bear. Increase levels of anxiety, depression, trauma, vicarious and persistent trauma and burnout are continued the lingering effects even after the curve has flattened and the vaccinations are being distributed. We see that the public has an increased anxiety about the choice in being vaccinated or not. Especially Black, Indigenous People of Color who have a history and current present day of distrust with the medical system due to ill informed consent in medical trials and being dismissed of the level of severity of symptoms experienced.
Anxiety can manifest behaviorally as hypervigilance, irritability or restlessness; cognitively as lack of concentration, racing thoughts or unwanted thoughts, impending doom and throughout the whole body as fatigue or sweating, nausea, palpitations, trembling, as having an intense feeling of impending danger or panic (Mayoclinic). Depression can manifest in an individual’s mood as anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings or sadness; behaviorally one can experience agitation, excessive crying, irritability, restlessness, or social isolation; sleep can be disturbed such as early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia, or restless sleep; cognitively one may experience lack of concentration, slowness in activity, or thoughts of suicide and the whole body can experience excessive hunger, fatigue, or loss of appetite (Mayoclinic).
I will share with you all some coping strategies in four different categories. Mentally, Physically, Emotionally and Spiritually. Mentally you can journal, utilize visualization activities, reaching out for support, positive daily readings and complete a thought record. Physically you can take a hot bath or shower, walk in nature, get a massage, breathe, and listen to your body signals. Emotionally you can listen to music, cry, sing, play with your child or a pet, see a counselor, attend group therapy and lastly, Spiritually you can pray, practice mindfulness throughout the day, engage in a spiritual community (ministry), or guided meditation. In addition to these, you can conduct a professional quality of life scale to assess your current work situation. You can engage in community care, appreciation and celebration of the process and learning and not only the winning, you can also follow and subscribe to podcasts, youtube, and instagram, mental health apps, and develop daily routines.
In conclusion, Black, Indigenous People of Color in a white supremacy culture were not expected to be alive, whole, and human in our society. However, it is our instinctual nature to protect ourselves and those we love from harm or death. I have learned that in warfare there is a time to rest, retreat, recover and recharge in order to resist, resolve, refocus and rebuild. Sending light and love.
Below you will also find telephone, text and websites of support.
Please note the following resources:
NYC Frontline Essential workers can call 1866-565-7715
All New Yorkers 1888-NYC-WELL or Text WELL to 65173
National Crisis Text line Text HOME to 741741
Vaccination hotline 1833-679-4829
Travel Advisory http://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/covid-19-travel-advisory
NASW NYC https://www.naswnyc.org