SHAPE-How-the-COVID-19-Pandemic-Has-Affected-Black-Women-Mental-Health-Spotlight

The Compounding Impact of the COVID Pandemic On Black Women

From disproportionate death rates to widespread job loss and the mental load of carrying on through it all, Black women in America have been dealt a unique blow from the coronavirus pandemic.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still reverberate almost two years after it started. While no one was immune to the death toll or its impact on jobs, education, safety, and mental health, Black families, especially Black women, felt the shockwaves the most. 

"Black women have a history of carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and making it look effortless," says Rhonda Mattox, M.D. "But this pandemic has been a universal trauma that has cracked our strong girl armor. And the truth is we are spent."

Black Women In the Workforce

A major factor is that Black workers, especially Black women, are overrepresented in essential and service jobs, ranging from daycare employees to hospital staff. They were and are therefore more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus and its effects from a health and job security standpoint. According to a 2020 report by the Economic Policy Institute, 14 percent of supermarket jobs, 17.5 percent of health-care positions, and 19 percent of childcare and social services-related jobs are held by Black people, even though they make up only 12 percent of the entire U.S. workforce. Many of those industries, such as food services, daycare, and retail, are less likely to offer paid time off and benefits. (Related: 10 Black Essential Workers Share How They're Practicing Self-Care During the Pandemic)

This overexposure may explain why Black people are facing more adverse outcomes from the virus, on top of pervasive implicit bias in the U.S. health care system that existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to mention a general lack of health insurance within the Black community. The number of uninsured Black people has decreased over the last decade, but in recent years has held steady at around 12 percent, compared to 9 percent of uninsured white people. However, at the state level, the disparity is even more egregious: In Utah, just 8 percent of white residents are uninsured, compared to 26 percent of Black residents. What's more, in some areas of the country, there's also an alarming connection between a high number of COVID-19 deaths among Black people, lower rates of all insured individuals, and higher rates of obesity and related conditions (e.g. Mississippi, which has the highest rates of three factors across every state). The Black community already has higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension; and these conditions along with our essential jobs put us at an increased risk for contracting and dying from this virus. As stress is a physiological catalyst for all of these conditions mentioned, the extreme levels of stress the Black community is facing — due to racism, oppression, job loss, and the mental load of "doing it all" without appearing "angry" — creates a cyclical health crisis when trying to survive the pandemic unscathed. 

Tracie Simpson, a probation officer in New Jersey, spends her days writing restraining orders for domestic violence cases, and because court is virtual, serving court orders through email. She's been fortunate to work from home during the pandemic, but doing so doesn't mean that her workday is easier.

The World Health Organization reports that domestic violence has increased globally since the pandemic's early days, which experts attribute in large part to the shelter-in-place orders which increase isolation under tense and stressful circumstances. Prior to the pandemic, Black women were already subjected to an alarming rate of domestic violence, with more than 40 percent of Black women reporting that they've been victims of intimate partner violence. As such, Simpson says she's had to get creative in this new normal. "I had a lady on the phone with me, trying to file for a restraining order, and her perpetrator came back into the house," she says. "I had to think fast, so I called the police on another phone and had her begin ordering a pizza so that he did not notice she was trying to get protection." 

Notably, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that money is a major stressor that can lead to domestic violence. The influx of stimulus checks due to the sudden and massive pause on the global economy has led to financial abuse of the elderly and women, as well as drug abuse. Simpson explains that, in some abusive scenarios, people are using their checks to purchase drugs, but they are also intimidating their romantic partners and elderly loved ones to gain control over their checks.

"Many are trying not to think about the poop show going on all around us," says Dr. Mattox. "Some are overwhelmed and are trying to check out, to numb, even if it's just for a few hours, and not to think about the disasters that are going on around us." She suspects that that's the reason for the increase in marijuana, opioid, and alcohol use, and having the extra funds — and free time, if you were affected by job loss — makes it easier to access these substances. And this is a compounding issue within the Black community, as there has been an increase in opioid deaths in Black folks since 2019, though the death toll for other racial groups has remained steady. (Related: 5 New Medical Developments That Might Cut Back On Opioid Use)

While any increase in violence and drug use is concerning, Simpson says she noticed that Black and brown families and families of color with language barriers, seemed to disproportionately suffer from the uptick. Many of her clients also lack email addresses, or they share email addresses with their abusers, which makes navigating domestic violence hearings over Zoom even more complicated. That means that the abusers are being informed via email that there is a restraining order, or they are finding out about communications via that shared email, which can cause a safety issue. 

While working remotely, Simpson (alongside her mother, who lives with her) has also been attending to the needs of her two children — while also attempting to shield them from some of the disturbing or violent details that can come up during her workday. The children's father works as a group home manager (an essential worker). Since remote learning began, Simpson says she's watched her introverted, independent daughter flourish and her son, who thrives with the structure of a classroom, struggle with the new virtual curriculum. While she's fortunate enough to have internet access and computers for all of her children, at the start of the pandemic, only 66 percent of Black households had broadband access. This meant, at that point, roughly 20 percent of Black families were relying solely on smartphones for internet access. 

Now nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Simpson says mounting burnout has her exploring other career options in an effort to prioritize her mental health over what she describes as a complicated, dysfunctional system. "I have to make sure that my children understand that your goal in life is not to just get a pension, work a job for 30 years, and retire," she explains. "If you're not happy, you need to be able to adjust." 

Dr. Mattox says what Simpson is describing parallels what many of her patients are going through. "As a psychiatrist, I am seeing the expected mood and anxiety disturbances," she says." But I am also seeing pandemic burnout and compassion fatigue (CF) at alarming rates." (See also: Why You Might Be Experiencing Quarantine Fatigue — and How to Deal with It)

The Childcare Emergency

While Simpson has had the opportunity to work from home, other essential workers have had to navigate leaving their kids alone or quitting in order to support their children through virtual learning. And while this undue burden on women was seen across races, it was particularly acute for Black women who are often largely responsible for the financial health of their families. In fact, nearly 75 percent of Black women are the breadwinners in their household, according to a study conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "The unemployment rates of Black women do not reflect how we are more likely to be serving as the heads of households," says Dr. Mattox.

Before the pandemic, Black families were already more likely to struggle with childcare options, and women of all races were typically the ones to give up their jobs due to childcare needs compared to men. Black moms are more likely to live alone with their children than any other race, so during the pandemic, they were faced with the decision to quit their job to provide childcare or struggled to find help if they quite literally couldn't afford to stop working. 

Black Businesses Owners

The Pew Research Center found that Black families were most likely to dig into their savings during the pandemic, visit a food pantry, and struggle to pay their mortgage or rent. This was especially true for Black business owners who had to furlough their staff or shut down their businesses altogether. Without government relief, 45 percent of Black business owners reported fearing that they'd have to close their doors by the end of 2020. One area that was hit particularly hard is the beauty industry, which had particular impacts on the Black-owned businesses across the country. Black-owned salons are staples in the community, with personal grooming services making up half of the Black businesses in the U.S. (Related: Black-Owned Wellness Brands to Support Right Now — and All the Time)

Laurie Hylick Braxton, who owns a New Jersey nail salon, says she lost a lot of business after having to shut down due to shelter-in-place orders that lasted for months at the height of the pandemic in the U.S. Luckily, she says unemployment benefits were able to keep her financially afloat, but when it was time to reopen, some of her older clients didn't return. Still, "I feel like I'm working harder than I ever have during the last 20 years of being in business," she adds.

While Hylick Braxton's and Simpson's experiences may echo those of many other Black women during the pandemic, others are still struggling to rebound not only financially, but also mentally and emotionally. With the disproportionate number of deaths in the Black community, the recovery process will continue for quite some time.  

COVID-19 may have tried to break Black women, but we've proven to be resilient in the face of the global health crisis, just like with many other hardships. Whether that means starting therapy, changing business models, or switching careers altogether, we've tackled these challenges in ways that make our ancestors — and generations to come — proud.

GO DEEPER

Being responsible for the family finances is a heavy load to carry, and the impact is even greater for Black women.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon