Skip to main content

Mental Health

“It’s No Surprise” and I’m Tired of Saying That

Why BIPOC need justice and healing instead of another news story

Yasmin Hajian, RPN, MC, RCC

Reprinted from the COVID-19 issue of Visions Journal, 15 (2), pp. 45-47

Yasmin Hajian

It’s no surprise that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities have higher infection rates and death tolls from exposure to COVID-19 than white communities.1 It’s no surprise that lessons learned about racial and health disparities in relation to this pandemic have come at the cost of Black and Indigenous lives. It’s no surprise that people continue to broaden their awareness of social injustices “off the backs” of historically and currently oppressed BIPOC communities.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may be new, the BIPOC struggle is nothing new. And despite this pandemic magnifying pre-existing inequities, we’ve seen this before. It’s no surprise.

At least, it’s no surprise to the BIPOC community. But it should also not be a surprise to anyone else.

But I’m tired of saying “It’s no surprise.” I’m tired of the facts being known and still finding news article after news article that discusses how the pandemic affects people differently based on their social locations and identities. If we repeat the same facts and quote the same statistics, will things somehow change? Or is the constant repetition designed to make us feel more accepting of unacceptable truths—as if by forcing ourselves to look at a harsh reality it will somehow become more palatable over time and we will feel better about it. And who gets to feel better? The people living the reality? Or the people viewing the people who are living the reality?

I’m not writing this piece to air my frustrations (even though I love to rant). Nor do I wish to regurgitate more statistics to prove that marginalized communities of colour are more negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s plenty of information out there for anyone who may still be blind to racial inequities.2 For the rest of us BIPOC, we know it, we live it and we want to move beyond acknowledging it because our liberation is tied to action and change. Not just words. What I really want to talk about here is BIPOC healing and the intersection of wellness and justice.

There is no wellness without justice

As a mental health nurse and a therapist, and a woman of colour, I’ve seen first-hand many of the day-to-day challenges that members of our BIPOC community face. COVID-19 complicates this everyday reality. Language barriers, racialized violence, financial marginalization and pre-existing mental health concerns (to name a few) contribute to our increased vulnerability during a pandemic.

Centuries-old, insidiously layered structures of power and oppression have had an enormous impact on BIPOC wellness, with lasting health, economic and social effects. For those who may not have recognized this truth before, here’s a lesson from BIPOC and all our ancestors: those with more power and privilege get to be well and stay well, and those with less, don’t. This is because structures of power create differential access to services, resources and social capital and result in some people (who are part of non-dominant groups associated with gender, ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation or expression and socioeconomic status) being positioned as less powerful, being oppressed and marginalized, and facing barriers to their educational, vocational and personal development.3 Time after time, these structures continue to be upheld and enforced within various systems in different ways, but mainly because power and privilege are invested in some systems and dominant groups but not others. If your family has been poor for generations, for example, it is difficult to obtain the things you need to change your social and economic circumstances. In fact, it can be difficult to visualize whether such a change is even a possibility.

This is why things like distress, depression and anxiety thrive in structures of power and oppression—which are rooted in systems of white supremacy, patriarchy and the foundations of individualistic and capitalistic societies shaped by settler colonialism. In truth, not only do mental health challenges thrive in these sorts of social contexts but many of them are caused by such social inequities and oppressive structures—many of which were intentionally constructed to cause harm to certain groups of people. Accordingly, we see that racialized and marginalized communities face higher rates of health inequities and more barriers to achieving wellness in socially unjust societies—societies in which social, economic, environmental and political policies (and structures of power and oppression) enforce social inequities. For example, Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon observed that colonial subjugation and war have such a harmful impact on the well-being of an individual that symptoms of violence and oppression are often misperceived as symptoms of mental illness.4 In these cases, Fanon believed it is the unjust society that is sick, not the individual. We simply can’t have wellness without justice: the two are connected and inseparable.

The fundamental relationship between wellness and justice means we must undertake a critical analysis of health care systems and institutions and consider how our care perpetuates inequities in our communities. Our mental health systems particularly have a long history of pathologizing people’s experiences, commonly the experiences of BIPOC, women, femmes, queer, non-binary and trans people, causing irreparable harms. In my professional experience, within our mental health care models, emotional distress (typically stemming from traumatic events) is often pathologized as a psychiatric condition rather than recognized as a reaction to suffering and pain linked to oppression and injustice.

Yet no amount of medication can effectively treat someone’s economic marginalization, or their experiences with sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or other social harms. Offering medication to treat pain rooted in social injustice serves only to diminish and further silence that pain, which in turn perpetuates structural and systemic harms.

The importance of collective healing

So how do we heal in the face of constant injustice? This is a hard question to answer in only a few words, but I will say that our freedom, particularly the freedom of BIPOC communities, from suffering, liberation, empowerment, agency and wellness cannot be attained if we are distinctively, individually, alone. Isolation, in many forms, is a hugely negative part of this pandemic. But we don’t have to get through the pandemic, or any other struggle, by ourselves. Staying connected (as best we can) is a powerful antidote to isolation and all the mental health challenges that come with it. Isolation can be detrimental to our mental health and our intrinsic need for social connection.

Unfortunately, current social distancing guidelines (which are necessary for our physical health) restrict our collective healing practices in many ways. And yet being in the presence of one another and witnessing and caring for each other are very powerful ways to soothe our emotional, physical and spiritual pain and some mental health challenges we may have. Part of what makes collective healing so powerful is the act of being in community with people who have shared intersecting identities and lived experiences, or who can be a supportive ally in all the right ways.5

I encourage all BIPOC to find (or rediscover) the community in which you feel belonging. Discover and revitalize the legacy of healing, liberation work and resiliency practices that have been lost or taken (as a result of oppression, colonization or genocide).6 This rediscovery and revitalization is vital to our mental well-being and moves us beyond words to real action. Collectively, we can better resist depression and anxiety, even by committing to small actions. We can heal our trauma, rest and take care of ourselves and each other by practising radical love and compassion, which feminist theorist and poet bell hooks argues is a necessary step towards liberation and decolonization.7 We can nourish each other through shared joy, laughter, food, music, dance, art, poetry and a connection to the land and nature.

With that said, sometimes we need additional help with our racialized trauma, and it can make a significant difference if our health care practitioner has similar lived experience and possesses the social and critical analysis needed to better understand rather than cause more harm.

BIPOC, particularly Black and Indigenous folks, don’t often see ourselves represented in the helping professions. This is one of the reasons that I co-founded Healing in Colour (healingincolour.com), a directory of BIPOC therapists across the land called Canada who hold anti-oppression values. This helps make the search for therapy that supports healing and liberation a whole lot easier.

About the author

Yasmin is a cis woman of colour and refugee settler on unceded xwməθkwəýəm (Musqueam), Səĺílwəta? (Tsleil-Waututh) and Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) territories. She is trained as a mental health nurse and therapist and is committed to social justice. Yasmin is associate faculty in City University of Seattle’s Master of Counselling program and co-founder of healingincolour.com

Footnotes:
  1. Wherry, A. (2020). One country, two pandemics: What COVID-19 reveals about inequality in Canada. CBC (June 13). cbc.ca/news/politics/pandemic-covid-coronavirus-cerb-unemployment-1.5610404.
  2. Gawley, K. (2020). Canada’s “colourblind” coronavirus data could leave officials blind to racial inequities. City News 1130 (April 7). citynews1130.com/2020/04/07/canadas-colourblind-coronavirus-data-could-leave-officials-blind-to-racial-inequities.
  3. Arthur, N. & Collins, S. (2014). Counsellors, counselling, and social justice: The professional is political. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 48, 171-185. https://cjc-rcc.ucalgary.ca/article/view/61030.
  4. Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York, NY: Grove Press.
  5. Ginwright, S. (2018). The future of healing: Shifting from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement. medium.com/@ginwright/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c.
  6. Healing in Colour. (2019). healingincolour.com/about.
  7. hooks, bell. (2006). Love as the practice of freedom. In Outlaw culture: Resisting representations, 243-250. New York: Routledge

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.