Diversity in Research: The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health in the Black Community

Julia Hastings
Associate Professor Julia Hastings has a joint appointment in the schools of Social Welfare and Public Health.

A UAlbany associate professor is examining how COVID-19 has impacted mental health in the Black community.

Julia Hastings, who has a joint appointment in the schools of Social Welfare and Public Health, is looking at this question through the lens of racial justice and trauma.

In her presentation at the well-attended Research Coffee Hour last week, Hastings posed the question of how a person can stay mentally healthy when they already have been impacted adversely by years of racial injustice and multiple traumas, such as poverty and violence.

Hastings is conducting a study that looks at how the Black community fared between March and June of this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seed funding for the project, “COVID-19 and the Black Church: Plans to Prosper and Hope in a Pandemic,” was awarded by the SUNY Office of Research and Economic Development. Data collection is ongoing.

In her initial research, the University of Michigan-trained researcher is looking at the differences among New York Black churches and their public health responses to COVID-19 health mandates. Historically, these institutions represent trusted, culturally relevant entities that offer spiritual guidance, facilitate collectivistic culture, lead social justice advocacy efforts, and enhance mental health as well as health knowledge. Traditionally, the church may be considered as the one place to go to educate parishioners about how to protect themselves and others from a disease like COVID-19.

Following the completion of Hastings’ study, she and her team will be able to identify how faith-based institutions adapted to government mandates, and assess the type of COVID-19 related information shared compared to CDC health behavior guidelines.

Hastings said she has found there is a low level of trust in the Black community for medical care in general, but greater trust in information the churches offer. This lack of trust is grounded in deep and long-standing disparities between how Blacks and whites are diagnosed and treated as patients.

The study also found a vast difference in technology resources from one church to another. Due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, some churches were only able to connect with members through a weekly phone call. Others had the resources and the people to set up livestream services on Facebook or other platforms.

Some churches had enough people and the organization in place to distribute masks, hand sanitizer and educational information about COVID-19. These institutions were able to operate “almost like the health department,” in their ability to do outreach and preventive care for parishioners, Hastings said.

Preliminary data analyses suggest that not every church has the resources, the volunteers or the committee structures to be able to disseminate help on what is essentially a public health mission.

Finally, Hastings noted, it is important to look at the expectations we have of mental health in the Black community, given the experienced adversities. In other words, for those who have experienced multiple traumas, ongoing racial injustice, poverty and now the ripple effects of COVID-19 – loss of jobs and health insurance, new childcare issues due to schools teaching remotely, and greater exposure to the disease if you are an essential worker or a service sector worker who can’t stay home – what do we as a society expect in terms of mental health?

Sustaining good mental health for Black communities during the pandemic requires a multi-layered approach that involves cultural attention to wellness and interpretations about what it means to be healthy.