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August 5, 2020 ● 4 min read
By Claire Pedersen

As the racism that plagues our country exists among all facets of life, there should be no surprise that the inequality extends into medicine.

Not only do Black patients experience racism, but also the Black medical professionals fighting for equality. The stress from these experiences, already endured on a regular basis, have been amplified during this time of civil unrest due to the exposure of racial injustices and an unprecedented world pandemic. These challenges add a significant mental health burden for these workers and can trigger unsettling feelings that can greatly interfere with their livelihoods. During a time when health care workers are so essential, it is the responsibility of non-Black providers to amplify the voices of Black health care professionals and ensure that they have appropriate mental health resources available when needed.

The mental health of all health care workers is a growing concern as the fight against COVID-19 ravages on.

Health care workers are experiencing difficulties daily due to the loss of patients, concerns about contracting the virus themselves, and general feelings of isolation as they distance themselves from friends and family. These burdens are accompanied by longer and irregular work hours and overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion.

Many mental health providers have increased their accessibility in response to the present pandemic, with reduced costs and teletherapy, specifically catering resources for health care workers. Although this supports great steps in the right direction, Black and African American individuals make up less than 2% of the American Psychological Association, leading to gaps in mental health care.

To exacerbate this, in general, White providers fail to understand and properly address race-related mental health issues therefore failing to provide adequate resources for Black health care workers. In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Monnica T Williams explains that a “colorblind ideology is actually a form of racism (Terwilliger et al., 2013), as it provides an excuse for therapists to remain ignorant of the cultures and customs of their non-White fellow human beings”. Placing a significance on and amplifying Black voices among the mental health community while also educating White providers will force a closing of these gaps in care.

The underrepresentation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), particularly Black people, within the medical community increases the mental health burden on these workers.

Black Americans make up 13% of the country’s population, but only account for 10% of nurses and 5% of doctors. This is particularly difficult amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when the virus is disproportionately affecting Black communities. In April 2020, the Black population made up 30% of Chicago’s population, and accounted for 70% of the city’s COVID-19 fatalities. The CDC finds that Black Americans are 5 times more likely to be hospitalized than their White counterparts. Furthermore, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield states in her Harvard Business Review article, “In some cases, these patients (of Black medical professionals) were actually neighbors and community members — people with whom black doctors and nurses shared a connection,” deepening the association and increasing the burden when Black patients are disproportionately affected.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, underfunding and understaffing are proving deadly.

The health care workers at hospitals with limited resources face increased risk of COVID-19 exposure due to inadequate supply of PPE and longer work hours leading to extreme fatigue. In addition to the challenges due to COVID-19, “the conditions under which many Black health care providers are working produces a specific kind of burnout, stress, and exhaustion”. Moreover, “many [Black health care workers] were motivated to go into health care by a desire to help those who were least likely to access high-quality, compassionate care”. Due to additional racial inequalities creating large economic disparities “they wanted to provide respectful, effective health care to Black populations for whom this is rarely the norm…. This commitment led many of my respondents to seek out employment at facilities in urban areas where most patients were Black, Latinx, and often low income and/or uninsured” where hospitals are rarely sufficiently funded.

These extraordinary efforts, to provide care for those lacking it the most, and in hospitals that are underfunded often lead to stress related to underfunding and staffing, and lead to further challenges in mental health.

As most of us know from experience, good mental health is essential to daily functioning and work productivity.

Having access to proper mental health resources is incredibly important for everyone, especially for those who must hold other people’s lives in their hands daily. Every day, and especially right now, our health care workers strive to treat all patients with proper care and respect, and it is important that we repay each of them the favor. It is past time that White providers and health care workers amplify Black voices, provide them with proper mental health resources and demand equality. After all, as stated by Deborah Cohan, MD, MPH, Medical Director of UCSF “Until [White providers] bring light and hold [themselves] accountable for [their] own racist tendencies, [they are] contributing to the racism in health care”.

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