8 Mental Health Practices for People of African Descent while Isolated
Sincere thanks to the following Black mental health professionals who contributed to this resource:
Donna Alexander, Social Worker, Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth (SAPACCY), Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH); Floydeen Charles-Fridal, Executive Director, Caribbean African Canadian Social Services; Keith Cunningham, Individual and Family Therapist, East Metro Youth Services; Leonard Edwards, Clinical Social Worker, Adult Neurodevelopmental Science, CAMH; Natasha Halliday, Clinical Navigator, LINK Program, Shoniker Clinic; Kevin Haynes, Social Worker, SAPACCY, CAMH; Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, Project Manager, Pathways to Care, Black Health Alliance; Akwatu Khenti, Scientist, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, CAMH; Chisomo Msosa, Student, University of Toronto under the supervision of Donna Alexander; Carol Mundley, Registered Practical Nurse, CAMH; Kaysia Taylor, Social Worker and Psychotherapist, Forensic Outpatient Service, Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences
Physical distancing is a significant shift in how we live. Our in-person interactions are limited and our routines have been disrupted. For low income families, it will highlight the disparities in access, for example, students who do not have computers to do online learning. Leaving home was an escape for children and partners in abusive relationships.
As we practise physical distancing by working and learning from home, it is necessary that we create structure to our days and identify ways that keep us connected with people to maintain good mental health. Such strategies are even more important for African peoples given the importance of social interaction in our cultures.
Below are practical steps to help you and your loved ones cope:
1. Build new relationships and strengthen existing ones
African peoples are culturally communal, probably best captured in the value we attach to social gatherings, ‘the lime’ as well as our convivial references to the village, tribe, crew, posse or fam. Depending on individual family circumstances, some children are being raised by grandparents or other family members. This is an opportunity to become even more connected. Share with them how you are coping and how you may support them and vice versa.
It may be time to give the fingers a break from texting and schedule regular video chats to allow for “face-to-face” conversations with loved ones locally and overseas. Video conversations will help us feel closer to them. There are many applications available to us: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, etc. This, understandably, may be challenging for those who are not technically savvy or do not have a phone or laptop.
2. Dance and sing to Ska, Reggae, Dancehall, Calypso, Soca and Afrobeats
Movement and singing are shown to have positive effects on the body, mind, and spirit. Make or find a playlist of whatever gets you grooving and relaxed. Mass events have been cancelled and while we may not be able to lime with each other, bring the party to your home and fete without end.
Whether or not you can sing and dance well, try it. We need movement and the external vocalisation of our feelings to take the invisible weight off our shoulders and get through traumatic experiences. Your home should be your sanctuary so feel free in it to be you.
For those into drumming and other forms of movement, it may be time to turn your attention to some of those interests. Play the drum or learn and get connected with the past of how Africans used them to communicate with each other.
3. Reconnect with or strengthen your faith-based practices
Don’t forget the role of God, religion and spirituality in our lives. For many, prayer and other religious and spiritual practices have been and continue to be a place of solace. Faith helps us endure through difficulties such as our many anxieties.
Consider the many Negro spirituals and gospel songs which lifted the spirits of slaves and former slaves through the darkest of times: Wade in the Water, Ain’t Got Time to Die, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Roll Jordan Roll, Oh Freedom, We Shall Overcome, Lift Every Voice and Sing, just to name a few.
Many places of worship are hosting their services online. Contact your place of worship for more information.
4. Prepare traditional meals with family
Food sustains and nourishes us although access to food remains an issue for some. Despite the challenges, planning meals and cooking as a family give us an opportunity to build bonds and strengthen and enrich relationships.
A lot of our history is in our foods and there is nothing like a home-cooked meal; some soul food, to warm the heart and share secret family recipes.
It is important that we turn to healthy options even when we are feeling low. Unhealthy foods have the potential to contribute to our depression. Be careful of using food to self-medicate and cope, particularly alcohol as we will be in closer proximity to it while working and learning from home, and it cuts off the thinking brain.
5. Research government measures to help with lost income
People of African descent comprise a significant portion of workers in low-income jobs and are at higher risk of job precarity. Losing one’s income, particularly in families with a single breadwinner, can be difficult in the short and long terms and can cause stress.
All orders of government — federal, provincial and municipal — have been implementing various income replacement programs to assist those who are most vulnerable and those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Find out which ones you are eligible for and apply as soon as possible to give yourself some relief.
6. Develop healthy daily routines
Black youth in Ontario have an unemployment rate nearly two times the provincial rate. Black youth also have higher rates of suspension and expulsion compared to other racial groups. Physical distancing may be particularly difficult for them as they no longer have the physical and social connection of going out as a group. As layoffs are announced, finding a job will also prove challenging.
Have structure to your day by getting dressed as if you were going out and doing activities to prevent learning loss and skills depletion. This keeps you in shape and builds your self-esteem, confidence and self-worth as you prepare for a return to normal routines of going to school and work. We must feed the mind in the same way we feed our body.
Work with an elder, role model or a motivated friend to develop a plan that keeps you mentally active.
7. Make self-help tip sheets
Self-help tip sheets are helpful resources to turn to on days when you are feeling unmotivated. Through our connection to the environment — plants, trees, the earth, animals and more, we produce many of the traditional items we use today. We also use lots of bright colours as you would see on kente cloths and Jamaican bandana and folk attire.
Gather items such as African arts, fabrics and essential oils that will engage all your senses and lift your spirits. You may even create a corner with candles and other meaningful items so you can disconnect and soothe your spirit.
8. Practice end-of-day rituals
Storytelling and humour are great ways to close out the day either in person with family members or by video chats. We are a people of oral traditions, used to pass on our history and much more. We also know that laughter is the best medicine. For example, tell Anansi stories or create your own. There are many stories connected to folklore that can reconnect you and connect your children to your roots.
General important activities to maintain good mental health include:
Take a walk during and at the end of your day
We need fresh air to keep our mind and body energised, and a change of scenery does the mind wonders. You may be fearful of going for a stroll but remember that public health officials have said it is safe to do so as long as you maintain 6 feet/2 metres of distance between yourself and others and observe other recommended practices.
Develop daily exercise routines
Many have been using daily exercises to help manage anxiety and stress. Canada’s food guide says, “Children and youth should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Adults, including seniors, should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.”
Manage TV and social media time
Social media and voice and print news cycles are set to COVID-19 24/7 with news about an increasing number of confirmed cases and deaths which only heightens our fears and anxieties. Take a break from the doom and gloom that only breeds sadness and worry, and find material that is positive, humorous and uplifting.
A lot of disinformation is being spread. Consult credible sources such as the World Health Organization and government agencies, for example, your public health authorities.
Schedule regular breaks
It may be helpful to pause for at least 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon to disconnect from whatever you are doing. Try breathing and stretching exercises which can be done at the desk and with minimal movement. There are many phone apps to help with breathing, mindfulness and meditation. Many of these exercises are also available on YouTube.