No normal after this pandemic, says mental health specialist

By Lincoln DePradine

Amanda Simonato, Dr Leo Edwards and Keith Cunningham

Members of the Black community must address the “stigma’’ surrounding mental health, especially relating to men, and also should examine creative ways of remaining safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a group of professionals.

“We really have to address the stigma that is attached to mental health,’’ urged  Grenada-born Dr Leo Edwards, a clinical psychotherapist and counsellor specializing in helping people with autism and other mental health challenges. “Mental health is about finding balance in your body, in your mind, in your psychology.’’

Edwards was part of a panel of presenters at a series of live webinars on mental health, its impact on adults and children, and how to cope, particularly with the pandemic that has caused business lockdown, job losses, and school closures. COVID-19 also has forced families to spend more time together indoors than they usually would have done.

The online series, held this month, was hosted by CCaDiRA, the Canadian Caribbean Disaster Relief Action. It’s an umbrella group whose main objective is coordinating “disaster preparedness, relief, emergency and response activities between the Caribbean Diaspora in Canada and the Caribbean region’’.

Edwards and Jamaican-Canadian Keith Cunningham, a licenced clinical mental health and trauma specialist, said historically – including during the period of African enslavement – Black men were discouraged from overtly expressing emotions; it was considered as displaying weakness.

“When we’re asked to go into ourselves and get in touch with our emotions and feelings, there is a level of discomfort surrounding that because that’s not something that we were taught to do from a young age,’’ said Cunningham.

“No one wants to seem like they’re weak; no one wants to feel ashamed; no one wants to feel embarrassed, because that’s not the sexiest thing for men – and particularly Black men.’’

Edwards, in concurring with Cunningham’s comments, said in the Black community, “the message we get is that you have to be strong; you don’t cry, you don’t show emotions. And so, if that’s the message we’re getting in our community, the chances are if you’re dealing with a situation that is causing you some mental health concern, you’re less likely to seek support because you don’t want to appear as weak; and not able to deal with whatever issues and challenges you’re up against’’.

Cunningham and Edwards also agreed that religion and spirituality are helpful but are not the complete answer to mental health problems.

“I do believe that, having faith and connection to a deity, can bring mental help and hope to individuals that believe in that line of support. But, is it enough to deal with the mental health concerns that individuals are facing, given this pandemic? I’ll say it’s not,’’ Edwards said.

“Although spirituality might bring hope to individuals that are experiencing some kind of mental distress, I will argue that additional supports might be required.’’

Cunningham described religion as “one of the default strategies’’ that can be used in dealing with mental health issues.

He said the health issues “may require more in-depth and focused conversation that does not necessarily have a religious context’’.

He advised parents, now shut in with children that are out of school with assignments to complete online, to plan their day’s activities and establish a routine.

“Get from the family what are some of the things that they want to do and help the children develop leadership skills. When children are involved, it helps reduce some of the anxiety,’’ he said.Amanda Simonato, a child and youth worker who assists school-age kids, emphasized that the current COVID-19 environment demands that parents make the safety of their children their top priority.

“Families need to be safe and well,’’ she said. “You need to just have fun within your home and figure what works for you.’’

According to Simonato, parents must not only  take care of themselves but “be very kind to themselves,’’ while using the stay-at-home situation to create family memories.

“Your child is no further ahead or no further behind, come September when all the kids go back to school,’’ she said. “Create some memories with them, so that they can look at the pandemic time and see all the great things that they did during that time.’’

Cunningham added that safety is “first and then everything falls in line after that’’.

He appealed to parents to be “creative’’ in organizing family activities.

“Take what works for you as a family, as a parent, and apply it. Make it fun; I cannot overemphasize that,’’ said Cunningham.

“We can’t speak about going back to normal. There is no normal after this pandemic. What normal looked like pre-pandemic is going to look different from post-pandemic.’’