Black mental health professionals on dealing with loss, COVID-19, and racial trauma in the New Year

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As we navigate the loss of loved ones, another COVID-19 surge from the omicron variant that evades vaccinations and boosters and the uncertainty that comes with it, including the possibility of more lockdowns, combined with the racial trauma (the cumulative effect of racism on someone’s mental and physical health) that accompanies being Black in America, theGrio spoke exclusively with three Black mental health professionals about dealing with it all at the start of a new year. They offered tips on how to best manage these uncertain times.

Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin, a psychologist, executive coach, and author of “Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life,” said losing and mourning loved ones, especially around the holidays, can be especially difficult, as so many people are celebrating, while you may feel alone while grieving.

“Whether it is during the holiday season or during another part of the year, it is so important to seek support and to express your feelings related to your grief to those who care about you and/or to a professional,” he suggested.

“You should not view talking about your mourning as placing a burden on someone else or ruining their celebrations. Rather know that those who care for you will want to help you cope, and that you are allowed to mourn in your own way and at your own pace, and that it is also critical for you to be kind to yourself as you deal with this loss, and make sure that your self-care remains a key part of your coping strategy.”

Dr. Joanne Frederick, a Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselor from the Washington, D.C, area, who is also the author of “Copeology”, first explained different types of losses we can suffer from, including the impact of non-death losses.

“It could be the loss of a relationship or even the change of the relationship,” she said.  “So the person is still there. You just lost that connection. You lost that person.”

Frederick added that there are things you should hold on to.”The things that you learned, conversations, use that to help elevate yourself.”

Arron Muller, LMSW, a licensed social work therapist who has been featured on HBO and Hot 97, implores that there is no way to mourn that is right for everyone.

“Mourning and grief are already complex processes and it’s different for everyone,” he said. The pandemic has made traditional mourning impossible and something that can’t come close to being replicated virtually, he shared.

“Not being able to even travel to attend a funeral or a memorial or homegoing, that’s very traumatic for the person who would need that experience,” he said.

Dr. Orbé-Austin says that as a result of omicron infecting many across the country and the world, it is starting to feel like the beginning of the pandemic again. “Our activities and outlets are becoming more limited,” he said.

“However, during times of uncertainty, it is essential that you identify the things in your control, like self-care routine and connecting with a support network, while managing the anxiety and/or fear of those things out of your control.”

Dr. Orbé-Austin also stressed getting help. “If you are feeling especially helpless, hopeless, anxious, or burned out, it is imperative that you seek assistance from a professional, in the form of individual or group therapy, or that you find networks of community support, with individuals who may be experiencing similar feelings.”

Dr. Frederick emphasized the resilience of Black people, citing our collective ability to endure far worse.

“Resiliency is the ability to bounce back after hard times, tragedy or trauma,” she defined. “It is in our DNA to bounce back and deal with the issues. It’s in our DNA because of, historically, all that we’ve experienced and all that we continue to experience.”

Dr. Orbé-Austin says that racial trauma is real, and acknowledging that you are experiencing it is the first step in dealing with it.

“One of the ways to manage racial trauma is to limit your exposure to things that may intensify it such as social media or the news and by talking about your range of feelings, like fear, anger, or worry,” he said. “Also, engaging in self-care activities, like good sleep, exercise, meditation, therapy, listening to music, yoga, and connecting with loved ones, and increasing your sense of agency are also key strategies to handle it.”

Muller discussed the trust or lack thereof, our people have in the government based on our history in this country, and the fact that the updated CDC guidelines aren’t exactly doing anything to earn that trust, causing mass confusion from coast-to-coast, expressing what many may be thinking.

“I really don’t trust this entity,” he says many have expressed. “It’s been shown throughout history that you don’t have our best interest (in mind.)”

When it comes to dealing with our emotions, Dr. Orbé-Austin implored validating feelings and experiences.

“We are all living through chronic trauma, and if you are struggling, it is ok to admit it,” he shared. “It doesn’t mean that you are weak or a failure. It means that you are human and deserve the same type of help and support as others. There is no shame in asking for help and in focusing on your self-care.”

Dr. Frederick also recommended recognizing and acknowledging what you are feeling.

“Know that you may experience either anxiety or depression, or sometimes both,” she said. “It is normal to experience that.” To overcome those issues, she suggests sharing what you are feeling. “Express yourself and ask for help.”

She then gave a personal example of having to be a caretaker for a loved one around Christmas and reaching out to someone to get help in the form of asking that person to add to a meal that was already being prepared to accommodate her and her family for a Christmas dinner she wouldn’t be able to prepare.

Finally, Dr. Frederick encouraged people to not be hard on themselves. “Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend,” she suggested. “Engage in self-care and find every little reason to celebrate in spite of what we are going through.”

Story & Photo Credit: Derrel Johnson/thegrio