Dr. Bravada Garrett-Akinsanya was a guest on “Conversations With Al McFarlane,” where she discussed COVID-19 and the African American Child Wellness Institute's new project that focuses on crisis intervention in the COVID-19 environment.
"It is very important that we be very involved in making sure that we remain healthy or get healthy," Garrett-Akinsanya said. "There is already a pre-loading in our community due to overexposure to stressors and limited buffers and resources to address the stress. So first of all, being healthy helps us."
Garrett-Akinsanya said adopting strong and consistent behavioral patterns will help us be well.
"The behavioral health of African Americans is really linked to our mental wellness. We say to ourselves things like, ‘what won't kill you will make you stronger.’ If we substitute ‘what won't kill you will make you stronger” with "If COVID doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger… If violence doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger.... If racial discrimination doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger..." one the one hand, we are affirming our resilience. Our people tend to take negative events and reconstruct them into a positive outcome.”
Dr Garrett-Akinsany said while this is good because of our resilience and understanding of difficulties, there is a problem.
"Unfortunately, COVID-19 may not make you stronger. It could just kill you. Or make us sicker," Garrett-Akinsanya said.
Garrett-Akinsanya said that we need to use the African value of Kujichagulia (self-determination) and take control of our own health, our own bodies, and our own decisions (what we eat, where we eat, and so on) to improve our overall health. She also emphasized the importance of wearing a mask.
"COVID-19 can kill you; but wearing a mask won't," Garrett-Akinsanya said, transposing the cultural catechism into useful instruction for today’s pandemic environment.
"If Black lives matter, then we need to save our own by first using a mask, washing our hands, social distancing, and doing all the things we are reminded to do," she said.
In the Black community, people experience a higher number of cases and experience one of the highest death rates from COVID-19. Garrett-Akinsanya went back to the principle of kujichagulia and using common sense.
"We need to use our common sense, our kujichagulia, to determine how we're going to engage."
The African American Child Wellness Institute program provides support systems such as individual counseling and family discussion about COVID-19 and how to keep safe, and how to deal with family member loss.
“We are establishing a new voice and a new narrative around mental health and health awareness,’’ she said. "The way we begin is by changing our minds. Psychologists have this construct called cognitive reframing. It's like the person who sees the glass half-empty, but another person sees it as half full. So having a positive attitude about one's ability to change is critically important."
Garrett-Akinsanya hopes community perspective on the pandemic goes from one of being victims to being survivors and people who are thriving. She said we have to take a new perspective on seeking help regarding mental health.
"If you had a toothache, you would go to a dentist. If you need a loan, you go to a banker. If you have mental or emotional challenges, you go to someone who specializes in that area. You can find your way on your own; you can pull your tooth out on your own, but it makes a lot more sense to find somebody who has expertise so you can do it faster, better, and in a more long-lasting way," she said.
In the African American community, Garrett-Akinsanya said, there is a stigma surrounding mental health. "We learn it, and we learn it from our environment. Part of the way of moving from those stigmatizations is to claim your wellness. And part of it is a legacy of slavery. When we were enslaved, what they taught us was that we didn't own our bodies. We could be sold. We could be killed. We could be whipped at the whim of a master.
"Because we didn't learn to own our bodies, we're psychologically in the process of overturning the trauma of being objectified," added Garret-Akinsanya.
Garrett-Akinsanya said we must own our bodies and our health, and in doing so, we will win.