By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Mental health. Those two words carry a lot of weight. For many years, there was a stigma associated with them and while the stigma still exists, it has diminished over time. In the past few months, the topic of mental health became a common one as many people have experienced new levels of stress and anxiety.
During a UW Now Livestream, Richard Davidson, the founder of Center for Health Minds, noted that right now is an unprecedented time in history. It’s a time of real stress and uncertainty, he said, and many are struggling to respond to both the pandemic and the protests.
The livestream, which took place on Tuesday, June 16, focused on mental health and well-being amid crises. Davidson asked viewers to describe how they were feeling in regard to the pandemic.
The responses ranged and included answers such as “curious, worried, exhausted, stressed.”
Davidson noted that part of the challenge during this time is the enforcement of social distancing.
“This phrase social distancing is a very unfortunate phrase that has been chosen,” he said. “Because what we are being asked to do is be physically distant, but we can be physically distant at the same time that we are socially connected.”
One of the challenges is to focus on the good things, which happen on a daily basis, Davidson said. There’s so much good in humanity that’s being revealed, he said, citing the work of essential workers including delivery drivers and healthcare workers.
“Savor the emotion of appreciation,” he said. “Appreciation is really quite powerful.”
He issued an invitation to viewers to take a moment out of their day and show appreciation for anyone and everyone. Spend a few minutes intentionally appreciating, it is like an elixir, he said. The brain can be shaped willingly or unwillingly by external forces. This is called neuroplasticity and it can be intentional, Davidson explained.
In other words, people can train their brains to be more positive hence his request to savor appreciation.
Alvin Thomas, an assistant professor School of Human Ecology, spoke on the toll that current events are taking on African Americans.
COVID-19 and the killing of black men by police are an additional psychological tax on people who are already overburdened, Thomas said.
“The psychological impact of racism and its related trauma is not new,” he said.
In response, Thomas is focused on building resilience and holding breathing space for black men and boys. Thomas explained that his work looks at positive child development and father involvement with a focus on risk and protection for black children and the outcomes of things such as youth violence.
“During what passes for normal, black people deal with a daily dose of stress from discrimination from both personal and institutional experiences,” he said.
The impact of institutional racism and violence can lead to other issues such as unhealthy eating habits, depression and more. Parental support, especially from fathers is essential, he said.
“Most of us are aware of the assumption that black fathers are absent from their children’s lives not as many of us are aware that that assumption is a myth,” he said.
To help support black men and encourage fathers to be active in their children’s lives, Thomas and his team started the Black Male’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Facebook group. The goal of the group is to help black men cope with the pandemic and the recent killings of black men.
“Black people are crying out, and America is not listening and not responding because it hears the noise and not the pain,” he said.
Thomas said while some of the causes behind the treatment of black men are being chipped away at slowly, other aspects can be addressed immediately. The community can step up and address the issues such as food deserts, resources for schools, mental health resources and more.
There are two pandemics happening right now, one is COVID-19 and the other is institutional racism.
“We need to look forward very soberly,” Thomas said. “We cannot bounce back to what used to be. We have to embrace the collective humanity of all and bounce forward.”