We Can't Breathe
Breathe: Reflections on Maintaining Your Mental Health During a Social and Public Health Crisis
In her own words, Marissa Leslie, MD, Child & Adult Psychiatrist with Adventist HealthCare, shares insights to support the black community struggling with how to maintain or improve mental health amidst chaos and crisis.
Since March, American communities have been focused on protecting our breaths. COVID-19 has threatened our actual and symbolic ability to breathe. We’ve taken steps such as, staying at home, limiting non-essential travel, wearing masks in public places and checking our temperatures to ensure our ability to breathe easy will not be compromised.
These measures have also affected our mental health. For some, the measures have symbolically made it harder to breathe amidst uncertainty about when these restrictions and health concerns will end. For others, panic attacks have actually changed how we breathe and increased our anxiety. Now, we are facing another threat affecting our ability to breathe.
“I Can’t Breathe”
These are the words George Floyd uttered while being restrained and during the last minutes of his life. Witnessing this heartbreaking death along with no action to preserve his breath has led many citizens to speak up in protest and outrage at the apparent disregard for his right to simply breathe.
The entire country and the black community, in particular, has suffered a collective trauma. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. I would say this is accurate in describing what watching George Floyd’s death felt like. Why the black community, in particular, you ask? Because this is not the first time this witnessed injustice has occurred and because systemic racism has led to scenes like George Floyd’s death occurring over and over in disproportionate rates in the black community. It is a fact that Black Americans are shot and killed by law enforcement twice as much as White Americans.
As a black psychiatrist, I am concerned and deeply committed to encouraging the black community and our allies to protect our mental health at all times and especially during this troubling time. Immediately following a trauma, we can expect that many people may have difficulty sleeping, experience great sadness, irritability, high anxiety and fear while some may want to completely disconnect and may feel numb, especially after repeated traumas which individually and collectively, we have certainly experienced.
Please know that if you are feeling some of the things I mentioned above, you are not alone. This realization may not help you sleep better at night, but I hope that it encourages you to not be ashamed and to share how you are feeling with others.
A Heavy Load
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many things we thought but may not have fully appreciated until this crisis. Communities of color truly help to hold America together. We drive buses, operate and clean hospitals, care for the sick, pack groceries and a multitude of other essential functions. During this pandemic, many of us have not had the luxury of working from home or staying out of harm’s way. Statistically, we tend to not have large safety nets and need to work to survive. Emotionally, we hold our families, churches, mosques, civic organizations and communities together. This is a heavy load in typical circumstances. When you add a pandemic and the continual frustration of feeling dehumanized, the load starts to feel unbearable.
Let it Breathe
Please let me leave you with hope. The black community has a wealth of cultural traditions to improve our mental health. When trouble comes, we can rely on our extended families, our churches, sororities, fraternities, our togetherness, our ability to take lemons and make lemonade. I see it all the time. What did we do when faced with a quarantine? We started an Instagram Club Quarantine to appreciate rich music and donate to worthy causes. The innovator and activist of that club, DJ D-Nice admonishes us to “Let it Breathe” during every music set.
I’d like to also encourage you to “let it breathe,” both physically and symbolically. Deep, intentional slowed breathing can slow down anxious thoughts and decrease rapid heart rates. Deep breathing can occur during prayer, meditation or simply in silence. Culturally, we are expected to be strong and shoulder on, but it’s important to take time to be vulnerable, to relax and give yourself permission to feel pain. It may be tempting to numb the pain and ignore it, but feeling pain is important to realizing that something needs to heal. James Baldwin said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Healthy ways of expressing pain include journaling, writing music, singing, exercising and sharing with others who understand. In addition, channeling that pain into something meaningful and impactful can help. Some people make their voices heard to make social change, others write lawmakers, become lawmakers and elect lawmakers in order to see lasting change. Yet others, create art, photo albums and music. There are so many healthy ways to channel our pain.
Finally, there is always a right time to consider speaking to a mental health professional, especially if we find that we can’t function at home, on the job or in our community. There is no shame in getting support. This load is too heavy to bear alone. As the African proverb tells us, “…if you want to go far, go together.” We have come far as a community, yet we still have a long way to go. Please remember the importance of your mental health and let US promote mental wellness and health TOGETHER.