We had the opportunity to interview therapist LaVonne Dorsey over Zoom. She was comfortably sitting in her home, excited to talk with us as she sipped from a red mug. We asked about her perspective on coping with Covid-19. LaVonne appeared concerned as she explained the drastic increase for her services due to pandemic isolation, saying, “People are seeking out support because they’ve never needed to before.”
LaVonne told us that even before COVID-19 isolation began, there was already a shortage of therapists in the state of Washington and that COVID-19 creates more obstacles for BIPOC mental health patients to get the counseling they need. She also explained the impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the murder of George Floyd stating, “The experience of racism is generational and trauma lives in the body and it stays in our body and system, generation after generation”. She expressed her concern and worries for those who are not affected by what’s happening and states, “if it doesn’t affect us then there’s something wrong.”
Mental health counseling systems everywhere face a shortage of therapists as more and more Black people are seeking mental support due to COVID-19, social isolation, and police violence regarding George Floyd’s murder. Only about 65-120 BIPOC counselors practice in Western Washington, which creates another mental health access barrier for Black people. According to the State of Washington’s Office of Financial Management, there are over 300,000 Black individuals in Washington. Becoming a mental health counselor “Is the most expensive occupation when it comes to education,” LaVonne said. Along with school tuition and expenses, mental health counselors need to engage in one year of unpaid work as an intern to gain licensure.
Lack of financial ability to pay for counseling is another barrier that prevents many Black individuals from seeking mental help. COVID-19 caused many BIPOC individuals to lose their jobs, which unequally increases the difficulty for them to seek support. During COVID-19, the unemployment rate for black men was 15.8% and 17.2% for black women in May 2020, and layoffs have hit hard in lower-wage service occupations where Black workers are heavily represented: such as hospitality, food service, retail industries, and health care. Additionally, these essential workers are more likely not allowed to work remotely.
For many people, COVID-19 started out as a joke, but quickly became the biggest health crisis the world has faced in living memory. Within a span of 2-3 weeks, the world was quarantined. Covid-19 was already a global pandemic – we just didn’t know enough about it to realize it at the time. It took a toll on everyone; people started losing their jobs and were not able to provide for their families. Over one million Washingtonians filed for unemployment within the first month of the pandemic.
For reasons including disproportionate access to healthcare and bias in medicine, Black communities are disproportionately negatively affected by high COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates. In addition, Blacks are more likely than other demographics to suffer from higher levels of unemployment in the pandemic and more likely to work in industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Combining COVID stressors with the viral murders of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery created a pressure cooker of enormous unmet need for mental health services within the Black community. “Seeing what is going on currently, is retraumatizing me because we’ve seen it in the past generations,” LaVonne said. LaVonne was one of countless Blacks in our community who were traumatized by these viral murders.
Black communities face numerous challenges regarding mental health ranging from stigmatization and discrimination to difficulties accessing mental health services and financial hardship. The shortage of Black mental health therapists greatly reduces the chances of receiving proper diagnoses and treatment. Though they are an underrepresented population in mental health, Black communities deserve the same chance at mental wellness we all pursue.
To support Black mental health, NAMI Seattle is committed to providing support and education for mental health care. As a non-profit organization, we can only accomplish this through the support and help of our community. We provide a regular support group for BIPOC individuals as well as online resources for Black, Indigenous and People of Color who are looking for mental health support and connection. Please consider donating to our organization and assisting those in need of care.
About the authors: Tyler Nelson Johnson, Michelle T Le, Yuzhen Chen, Qi Qi, Mike Sae-Ung, and Yohannes Tassaw are UW Bothell business students in Professor Laura Umetsu’s business ethics and writing course. They wrote this piece as a class project to spread awareness of mental health.