The pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on the mental health of Toronto’s Black communities

Liben Gebremikael

Eight Black-led and health focused community groups are increasingly concerned about the mental health of a large segment of the Black community under the stress of the pandemic, its socio-economic consequences and the policies being implemented as of late.

“Vaccine passports are being introduced and many people and communities feel vulnerable because of fear of further stigmatization and ostracization,” explains Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a member of Toronto’s Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity. “Communities of people of African descent want the vaccine passport regulations to include anti-racist expectations, training and accountability in the implementation of the policy. Race based data must be collected to protect people of African descent from further harm during implementation.”

The eight frontline Black community organizations who are seeing firsthand the mental health effects of the pandemic are: Black Creek Community Health Centre;  Black Scientists’ Taskforce on Vaccine Equity; Black Physicians Association of Ontario (BPAO); Canadian Black Clergy and Allies

Dr. Akwatu Khenti

(CBCA); Canadian Black Nurses Network (CBNN); The Black Health Alliance; The Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA); and the TAIBU Community Health Centre.

There are several key factors that differentiate the Black population in how the pandemic weighs on their mental health including:

– More COVID-19 sickness and death are being experienced by the Black community and they are unable to assist or grieve according to cultural customs. It is estimated that the Black Canadian COVID mortality rate is 32 per 100,000 versus 16 per 100,000 for white Canadians. There will predictably be post-pandemic mental health disorders such as prolonged grief, depression, traumatic stress and substance abuse disproportionately affecting Black people.

– Vaccine hesitancy remains high in the Black Community with many citing historical experiences, safety concerns and rushed production as key reasons for not getting vaccinated. The stress of making a serious health decision with a threat of job(s) loss hanging over them has many low-income members feeling pressured and overwhelmed.

Dr. Akwatu Khenti is a scientist in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, an Assistant Professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and the lead scientist of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity.  He is involved in a wide variety of international initiatives on mental illness including addictions in primary care.

According to Dr. Khenti, “Black communities want a coordinated federal, provincial/territorial and municipal mental health strategy that emphasizes prevention of PTSD, addiction harms and worsening mood and anxiety disorders.” He added that “Training and capacity building of primary care clinicians and community mental health practitioners about racialized prolonged grief and traumatic distress – this needs to be developed and expeditiously implemented.”

The situation is both complex and dire according to the Executive Director of TAIBU Community Health Centre, Liben Gebremikael, “The damaging impact of anti-Black racism on the mental well-being of Black Canadians prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic is not getting the public attention the scale of the issues deserves…building back better requires a long term comprehensive mental health strategy supported by relevant race base data collection and analysis as well as systems accountability.”