Savana – a national newspaper of Mozambique

Isabelle Dena, a PhD student with Community Health and Epidemiology, College of Medicine, University of Sakatchewan, was recently published in Portuguese, in Savana, a national newspaper in Mozambique. The piece was first published in English in the Regina Leader Post on August 26, 2020.

Her op-ed, entitled Media has role in helping mental health of Black people, follows below. It contributes to discussions about the unequal impacts of COVID-19, mental health, and the media’s role in processes of racialization that, though focussed on the global north, encourages readers to think through how those same issues are experienced and addressed in Mozambique.

Now, more than ever, there is a stronger urgency to prioritize mental health treatment among Black people, writes Isabelle Dena.

The “fourth wave”  of the COVID-19 pandemic is predicted to encompass the degradation of our mental health. No one knows whether this wave is going to be a tsunami or a little upsurge. However, we can assume that this wave will affect everyone directly or indirectly. The question is, are we ready when this next wave hits?

Despite everyone being impacted by COVID-19, Black people in Canada and the United States are facing a double crisis — the coronavirus pandemic and anti-Black racism. Now, more than ever, there is a stronger urgency to prioritize mental health treatment among Black people.

In recent months, news media platforms have had a significant role in influencing public perception and behaviour. Consider media coverage of the effects of coronavirus on Black communities compared to other populations. The choice of words used in news headlines and content portray Black people in a negative perspective. For example: “Corona wrecks havoc in African American neighbourhoods,” or “Coronavirus is infecting and killing black American at an alarming rate,” or “Black Americans are being hammered by double pandemic,” or “Why Black people are at higher risk of coronavirus.”

Notably, the pandemic has magnified underlying existing issues of racism, discrimination, health inequities and marginalization of Black communities. The current way news media present Black communities in the pandemic is a form of media microaggression that reinforces negative stereotypes about Black individuals. Seldom does the media purposefully show photos or images of resilience in Black communities. There is a need for a balanced view of our communities.

Heightening the visibility of Black oppression are the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor among others in America, and in Canada, Regis Korchinski-Paquet among others deaths, and the subsequent protests against police brutality (another contributing factor to the urgency to address Black people’s mental health.)

Repeated depiction of the death of George Floyd on videos and on the news media outlets, shows a lack of sensitivity, disproportionately devaluing Black bodies to be put on display. Once one has seen the video, one cannot “unsee”; it keeps on replaying. As Black people, we need room to breathe and do self-care, but we cannot move forward with constant bombardment. The constant barrage of negative images about the suffering of Black people by news media outlets and social media has been toxic.

The raw depiction of Black suffering for all to watch is traumatizing and dehumanizing. The cumulative effects of being exposed to anti-Black sentiments via news media channels and social media in the form of videos, headlines, photos of Black people and protests, can invoke different negative emotions inducing stress responses triggering mental health issues. That triggers pain, trauma and anger, opening deep wounds that we are trying to heal. This is racial trauma, and we feel it in our bodies every time we are triggered. The media needs to be sensitive to their role and pay close attention to how they portray Black people as a collective experience of pain.

The negative images displayed by news media platforms can be internalized by both non-Black people and Black people as true. We need to confront issues of marginalization of Black people in Canada and America and interrupt the status quo and engage in real problems. Unfortunately, currently, the only way Black people are “seen” is when portrayed as a statistic. If COVID-19 and the protests against police brutality do not provoke us to prioritize mental health among Black communities, then I wonder what will? Not addressing these issues is a social injustice issue.

It is critical for news media outlets to have a balanced approach to news presentation, examine their ethics, especially at this time of sensitivity regarding anti-Black racism. Black people are hurting and the news media can play a role to provide a place of hope instead of perpetuating and inducing racial trauma.  Moving forward, it is critical for any mental health practitioner providing services to Black people to acknowledge Black people recent experiences and how that may shape their current mental health concern.

Isabelle Dena holds a Master’s of Arts in social work and is a registered social worker in Saskatchewan. She is currently a PhD student under the supervision of Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, at the University of Saskatchewan.