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Everyone’s problem: COVID-19, race, mental health | Safia Thompson

Wednesday, September 23, 2020 @ 12:39 PM | By Safia Thompson

Safia Thompson %>
Safia Thompson
We engage in daily discourse about the COVID-19 pandemic with regards to mental health, but have we stopped for a moment and thought about the double pandemic we might be living in? As per the government of Canada website, we have had a total of 141,911 COVID-19 cases in Canada, with 123,723 recovered, 9,205 deaths and 8,983 active cases. While alarming and certainly troubling, I am here to remind you that we are also living through another pandemic, namely anti-Black racism.

In loving memory of my ancestors and in honour of the Black community in its entirety, I must mention that my comparison of anti-Black racism to the spread of an infectious virus is not an attempt to diminish the rawness of oppression. By referring to anti-Black racism as a “pandemic,” I hope to illuminate the ways in which this four-century-long pandemic was and still is everyone’s problem. My wish for us as a society is that we become “comfortable” talking about and fighting against the injustices experienced by Black people happening within our very own nation.

We can start by rejecting the argument that it [anti-Black racism] is a “U.S.” thing. According to Jack Graham via his article for Thomson Reuters, “data from 2013 to 2017 [suggests], researchers found the lethal police shooting rate of Black people in Toronto was 7.29 per million people each year, compared with an average of 6.99 per million people in the United States.” While those statistics are troubling on its own, even more eye-opening is that, according to this report Black people make up only nine per cent of Toronto’s population — now this is troubling, let alone the systemic racism Black people face within the employment and educational institutions.

In addition to reading about it, we can turn on the news and hear reports regarding the brutal killings of Black people in the United States. We can also log into our Instagram accounts and see the constant hashtags referencing the name of the next Black unarmed murder victim. In Ahmaud Arbery’s case, media gave us access to see what he was doing — simply jogging — right before he took his last breath.

It is widely known that the COVID-19 pandemic has had detrimental effects on the well-being and mental health of millions of Canadians both infected with and affected by the virus. If this is the case, where does that leave Black people?

The pandemic that Black people are currently living through is not simply that of a virus. We have also been living through the publicized killings of our brothers and sisters while simultaneously trying to dismantle systems of oppression and fight against wickedness in higher spaces. Surviving amid two pandemics while managing your mental health is far from an easy task — this is magnified when you are Black and also living with a mental illness. A Black colleague of mine who openly identifies as a person with a mental illness states, “I’m numb and desensitized to everything. Racism and COVID included. I’m just watching everything like it’s a movie on TV.”   

When we think about our lives feeling “like a movie,” we would naturally think of it as being exciting, joyful and what dreams are made of. For Black people, the innumerable pressures of living through the COVID-19 and anti-Black racism pandemics have amplified stoic behaviour within our community. We are hurting, but we are also very … very tired.

With a shortage of Black mental health-care professionals across Canada, the cultural-specific and relatable counselling and therapy services we so desperately need seem out of reach. According to Nene Kwasi Kafele, former director for health equity at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, “In a psychiatric system that is still Eurocentric in values, worldview and practice, it follows that there are systemic challenges at every stage of the system’s interaction with people from racialized groups …  .”

As a new law student, I must mention that Ryerson University’s Faculty of Law has been authentic with its commitment to inclusion, diversity and access to justice. It is refreshing to finally see individuals who look like me on an executive academic administration at a law school who can understand my experiences as a Black woman entering the legal field.

With the COVID-19 and anti-Black racism pandemics continuing, I hope to see the same representation within the counselling and mental health-care departments at the school. “Representation” within those crucial departments is a start, but for us to be truly progressive in dismantling the very ideologies which fuel exclusionary and racist institutions, we must actively and collaboratively work to abolish their foundational systems of oppression.
Safia Thompson is a member of the inaugural class at Ryerson University, faculty of law and is the recipient of the faculty’s Andy and Valerie Pringle Law School Scholarship as well as the co-president of the Black Law Students’ Association. You can connect further with her via LinkedIn.

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