Panel discusses COVID-19’s mental health impact on marginalized communities

Faculty of Health Sciences panel discusses diversity in mental health

Bell Let’s Talk day is Jan. 28.
Journal File Photo

The Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) and Bell Let’s Talk co-hosted “Bell Let’s Talk: Mental Health in Diverse Communities” over video-chat platform Zoom last Friday. 

The event featured a conversation about the realities of mental health in diverse communities, with a focus on the mental health of racialized individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, which was held to mark the upcoming Bell Let’s Talk Day on Jan. 28, garnered an audience of over a       thousand viewers. 

Moderator Dr. Jane Philpott, dean of the FHS, opened the event by stressing the importance of conversations about mental health in marginalized communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The discussion featured four panelists: Dr. Myrna Lashley, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University; Dr. Kenneth Fung, psychiatrist and clinical director of the Asian Initiative in Mental Health Program at the University Health Network in Toronto; Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami; and Asante Haughton, a human rights activist examining mental health through the lens of racism.

Philpott posed questions to the panelists about the impacts of COVID-19 on mental wellness in racialized communities. The conversation largely focused on how the social determinants of health have been compromisedfor racialized communities during the pandemic. 

The panelists took turns sharing their own personal experiences, as well as experiences within their respective communities. They agreed that racialized individuals in their communities were suffering significantly from the impacts of the pandemic. 

Lashley noted mental wellness has been significantly impaired in the Black community in Montreal, as issues of the pandemic have increasingly coalesced with racism. 

“When you are dealing with issues of the pandemic on top of working, and people are bringing issues of racism to bear upon you, it multiplies the problem,” she said. “You never know where the [issue of the pandemic and issue of racism] begins and where it ends. They become so interrelated that it’s hard to decipher the issues at hand.”

Fung noted an increase of racism toward members of the Asian community in Toronto at the dawn of the pandemic as having a lasting negative impact on mental health. 

“The pandemic really highlights existing problems,” Fung said.

Fung said the negative impacts of COVID-19 had been felt in Asian communities prior to the pandemic’s global outbreak. He explained that Asian communities felt previously concerned by the early outbreaks of COVID-19 in Asia and faced public discrimination prior to the global spread of the virus.

“I run an Asian [mental health] program, and before there was any public spread, the administration said that my Asian mental health clinic was a high risk clinic [due to the outbreak of COVID-19],” he said.

“The Asian community has suffered from the dawn of the pandemic mentally and psychologically from worrying about what’s going on [in Asia] to encountering racism and stigma [in Canada]. This suffering has only escalated when the pandemic arrived in Canada for a lot of Asian populations.”

Obed spoke to a number of mental wellness challenges for Inuit populations in Canada. With many Inuit people living in fly-in/fly-out communities, he said Inuit communities face obstacles in obtaining tests for COVID-19 and gathering non-perishable food items. Obed also expressed concerns about routine healthcare, which can only be accessed in southern healthcare centres in locations with higher rates of coronavirus infections.

“There are very real concerns about going to the south and receiving care,” he said. “There have been Inuit people who have died from contracting COVID-19 during that care.”

“This is a fear that people have around accessing basic healthcare.”

Haughton noted that the pandemic has highlighted several systemic challenges faced by racialized individuals that impact mental wellness. He pointed specifically to the intersection of racism and poverty as a critical issue.

“A lot of trickle down impacts of our lives being virtual and disconnected from each other have provided a lack of access to information about how to stay healthy during this time,” Haughton said. “People are losing access to community centres. People don’t have good internet at home. A lot of these trickle down effects that are occurring that haven’t been spoken about as a consequence of marginalization.”

Haughton also pointed to the realities of several racialized individuals as contributing to poor social determinants of mental wellbeing. He highlighted particular stress among those who have lost jobs and no longer have access to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and those who contract COVID-19 while working in low-paying essential services and bring the infection home to their multigenerational households. 

“When we look at how we are structuring our systems from top to bottom, we are putting people in positions where they are more likely to experience poor health and mental health outcomes from how we have designed certain structures,” he said.

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