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February 16, 2022

Black History Month series, part 3: Emotional health

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Grant Merida squareAs part of the Heersink School of Medicine Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s Black History Month series, we shift the focus of part three to Black emotional health and well-being — including a feature and helpful tips from Merida Grant, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology.

Emotional health is top of mind for many as we move through yet another phase and variant of the pandemic. Many of us find ourselves asking what it means to be emotionally healthy.

Is it the feeling of being happy and joyful? Is it the ability to thoughtfully understand and process the ebbs and flows of daily life? Or, does it involve more profound elements of our existence like experiencing grounded contentment, valued acceptance, and equality?

Emotional health generally refers to the abstract measure of quality well-being and how we cope with stressors in positive and negative ways. While somewhat subjective, emotional health can silently influence all aspects of our lives, from socioeconomic status to relationships to career success.

Stress levels are at their peak, and the Black/African American community may be feeling the effects even more intensely at this time due to the pandemic, political, and economic issues.

Across the nation, members of Black/African American communities might find their friends, neighbors, and family members at an increased risk of contracting COVID due to jobs with little or no flexibility in work-from-home options. Currently, suicide rates are up in the Black community for those ages 15-24; and in regards to Black teenage girls, grades 9-12, statistics show they were 60% more likely to attempt suicide in 2019, compared to non-Hispanic white teenage girls of the same age range.

“Poverty level affects mental health status. Black or African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress,” explained Grant.

Grant remembers being a young woman of high school age in Pennsylvania and noticing that her best friend’s father was one of the only Black/African Americans she knew with a doctorate degree—a psychologist at Penn State. While his career and work in the field was what ultimately led her to pursue a career in mental health as well, representation has not significantly increased since that time.

She identifies one of the more impactful difficulties she faces as a Black/African American scientist in psychiatry and the lack of diversity within research as a whole. A successful research career is, to some extent, dependent upon mentorship and relationships between colleagues. Diversity often remains insufficient at the upper decision-making levels. Despite adversity, Grant has produced extensive data on depression and early life trauma and continues to conduct research within the department in collaboration with colleagues in both the psychology and psychiatry departments.

When asked how the Black/African American community can stay well during the current times we’re living in, Grant points to turning the focus inward.

“Self-care is incredibly important at this time,” Grant said. “I would recommend limiting time on social media, which can be toxic with regard to issues of race. Also limit viewing time with regard to the news when high profile issues related to killings occur, as these can be traumatizing with repeated viewing.”

Grant also recommends methods of relaxation and de-escalation of stress, such as going on a family vacation, getting some exercise by going for a walk, or spending quality time with family and friends (COVID-safe, of course). The main thing, she said, is to avoid is social isolation. Stay involved and stay well.