It’s not hard to figure out why. Look at the coronavirus pandemic and its many adverse impacts — increased economic insecurity, disruption of civic and religious life. Add to it the social unrest over police killings of unarmed citizens.
“I’m just amazed when I turn on the television set,” said Lawson, who is Black and lives in Silver Spring. “The images of police brutality are so disturbing, and the racial disparities in deaths from covid-19 are very distressing.”
Within just one week in June, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, anxiety and depression among African Americans shot to higher rates than experienced by any other racial or ethnic group, according to an emergency weekly survey of U.S. households by the Census Bureau.
An astounding 41 percent of Black people reported symptoms of at least one of those conditions.
Lawson, in association with the group Black Psychiatrists of America, consults with the Leadership Council for Healthy Communities, a D.C.-based nonprofit composed of more than 70 faith-based institutions. The mission is to improve access to health care for residents in the Washington area’s most underserved neighborhoods — especially Southeast and far Northeast, which have been hard hit by unemployment, homelessness, the pandemic and opioid overdose deaths.
When it comes to mental health, Lawson finds it is not simply access to treatment that he is up against. It’s also stigma.
“When I worked with incarcerated individuals, the young Black men were clearly depressed,” Lawson said. “But they’d never admit it because, to them, being depressed meant that you were crazy. That’s the last thing they wanted to be. They had a saying, ‘Better to be bad than mad.’ Instead of showing their depression through hopelessness, they chose the flip side of the coin: rage.”
Lawson noted that there are also cultural prohibitions on expressing unpleasant feelings. “Some folks believe that being sad for no reason only makes other people around you unhappy, and you shouldn’t do that,” he said. “So, they internalize their feelings, suppress them. Or, clinically speaking, they become depressed.”
He added, “Some people will not even use the word sadness or despondent because they see themselves as a hearty people, able to resist such feelings. Acknowledging depression is tantamount to saying there is a weakness in the family. So everybody pretends nothing is wrong.”
But as Michelle Obama made clear last week, we cannot pretend nothing is wrong with us when so much around us is wrong.
“I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression,” Obama told my colleague Michele Norris during a podcast last week. “Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”
Lawson understands that some of the resistance to treatment stems from a history of psychiatric malpractice done to African Americans. There was a disorder concocted during the Civil War called “drapetomania,” said to be a mental illness unique to enslaved people that caused them to run away.
Civil rights protesters who got arrested were sometimes called schizophrenic as part of a scheme to make them sound dangerous.
Lawson recalled that as a medical school student at the University of Chicago, a psychiatric professor said to him, ‘You people are lucky because you don’t get depressed.’ I’ve heard professors say Black people don’t commit suicide. . . . Black people don’t feel pain the same way white people do.”
Underneath those made-up diagnoses and mistaken claims was little more than an effort to mark Black people as less than human.
To combat the historic mistreatment and provide the needed mental health services, Lawson says his profession needs far more people like him. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Yet of the estimated 41,000 psychiatrists in the country, only two percent are Black, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Increasing the number of Black psychiatrists won’t happen overnight, so Lawson is advocating one traditional avenue toward better mental health and one more modern.
“During this pandemic, you can’t hang out at the barber shop, the beauty shop or the bar for the usual therapeutic interactions, but you can . . . connect with the church online,” Lawson said. “The church can play a huge role in helping people by letting them know that they are not alone, that we are all in this together. We need positive messages and an optimistic attitude, especially when things are looking bleak. We need reminding that African Americans have been through worse. And if we stick together, as a people, we will get through this.”
Lawson is also doing self care.
His favorite activity is mixed martial arts. But the pandemic has put a damper on contact sports for the foreseeable future. So, he ordered a stationary bike for exercise.
“I grew up on a farm in West Point, Va., and learned some creative ways to keep myself entertained,” he said. “Like playing with animals and fishing. Now I can do some of the same things.”
For instance, he said, “I just grew two tomatoes in my backyard.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to feel better. Pet a cat, walk a dog. Get into the soil, plant a garden. And sometimes, it takes a little more. Like a call to a mental health clinic.
“Or just pick up the phone and call a friend — don’t isolate,” Lawson said. “When you say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ that should mean your life also matters to you.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.