'I Feel So Overwhelmed': COVID-19 and Police Violence Takes a Toll on Black Health Care Workers

Dr. Tiffany Chioma Anaebere near her home in Emeryville. She said after watching the video of George Floyd being killed, she felt "debilitatingly depressed." (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Dr. Tiffany Chioma Anaebere doesn’t remember where she was when she heard about George Floyd’s death.

She could’ve been at her home in Emeryville, where she lives with her fiance. Or in the car, during one of her many commutes between Stockton and Modesto, where she works in two different hospitals as an emergency medicine physician on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

All she knows is that, at first, she avoided watching the video.

“I refused to. Like, I cannot see anything right now. And I'm normally the person that's like, ‘Girl, did you see this video?’” she said. “I was like ‘No, no, no, no, no, I’m not watching anything.’”

But eventually, days after the story of Floyd’s death had permeated the national consciousness and tens of thousands took to the streets to demand justice, Chioma Anaebere finally sat down and watched it.

“I remember watching it and just being like, ‘OK, well, I am now debilitatingly depressed,’” she said. “I was already teetering on the edge. And… it was over after that."

Dr. Tiffany Chioma Anaebere removes the medical gear that she uses as an emergency room doctor. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

‘Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, Distress’

Across the United States, and the world, health care workers are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress due to the overwhelming workload of the COVID-19 pandemic. A March study of over 1,200 health care workers in China found that a large proportion experienced symptoms of “depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.”

And those feelings of stress and anxiety can be compounded for Black health care workers, who make up more than 11% of these types of workers in the United States.

Along with reports showing that the coronavirus disproportionately impacts Black, Latino and Indigenous people, workers also leave their long, grueling shifts only to experience racism in many aspects of their daily life — including coming home to news reports and videos of violence.

Dr. Georgia Davies is an emergency medicine physician currently wrapping up her residency at Rutgers Medical School. Davies said she felt the same depression and sadness as her colleagues in the medical field due to COVID-19. But it wasn’t until news about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous others came out that she started noticing the effects on her mental health.

“I’m the type of person that, when I’m tired, I can go to sleep immediately. And for the first time ever in my life, like, last week and the week before, I’ve not really been able to,” Davies said.

“You have fathers, your brothers, your uncles, you have nephews, … you have significant others that look like someone like George Floyd. And just, getting scared for them and scared for yourself,” she added.

“The racism, the police brutality, the [pandemic], the poverty, the inequities and injustices—all of those things are creating this hurricane of violence that's out there in the community,” said Deborah Burger, president of the California Nurses Association.

Burger said health care workers need “some kind of outlet” to help deal with both their stressful work environment and the stressors they’re experiencing every day.

A Crisis Line for Health Care Workers

It was in that spirit that Alameda County mental health workers and advocates began developing a crisis line for health care workers. The line launched in May and is designed to encompass workers from all sectors of the health care — including janitorial and maintenance staff.

Alice LoCicero, president-elect of the Alameda County Psychological Association, helped craft the program.

“Some of the least well-served and most stressed people in the health care settings are not only the health care workers themselves … but all the other workers,” LoCicero said. “Sanitation crews and maintenance people and food service employees and others who are really often unseen, but are having the same kinds of stresses.”

The line currently has 100 volunteers and 20 paid staff. Workers at the crisis line say callers are expressing feelings of compassion-fatigue and burnout.

“When you’re in the helping profession, one way of self care is to have a distance between yourself and the person you’re helping,” said Binh Au, the crisis line program director at Crisis Support Services of Alameda County.

But, Au said, during a pandemic it’s difficult to get that distance because workers are experiencing the same conditions as the people they’re serving. And that includes experiencing racism firsthand as well as the secondary trauma of seeing Black people killed by police officers.

“Everyday they’re holding a trauma and they’re holding these experiences and grief. And COVID-19 has exacerbated that trauma, has exacerbated that grief,” Au explained.

“We're not getting any reprieve,” Dr. Tiffany Chioma Anaebere said. “We're not getting any sort of respite from the pandemic. And you’re putting this on our communities as well. Like... have some empathy, have some mercy.” (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Coping with Additive Stress

After watching the video of George Floyd, Chioma Anaebere said she stayed in bed, in the dark, for days. At one point, she considered calling out sick from work.

“I feel so overwhelmed and almost as if I can't pay attention,” she said. “And I don't want to, you know, put patients at risk cause I literally cannot focus. But then having to [say] like, ‘OK, I need to block this out.’”

Dr. Jessica Edwards of Texas said she's been spending even more time with her patients, talking through their feelings in this moment.
Dr. Jessica Edwards of Texas said she's been spending even more time with her patients, talking through their feelings in this moment. (Courtesy of Dr. Jessica Edwards)

But the video sat in the back of her mind. In order to help process what she’d seen, Chioma Anaebere started writing.

She drafted an article on the lessons police can learn from health care practitioners, which was recently published in Scientific American. Finishing it, she said, was the first time she felt “a huge sigh of relief” because it allowed her to work her thoughts and feelings out on the page.

Dr. Jessica Edwards, a family physician in Texas, also said writing has helped her process her feelings. She’s written several blog posts and dedicated an episode of her podcast to social determinants of health and how they impact Black Americans.

“For me, those things have been really important for my mental health,” Edwards said.

Edwards has also been spending even more time with her patients, talking through their feelings in this moment.

But between a pandemic that disproportionately impacts communities of color and ongoing police violence, it’s a lot of weight to carry.

“We're not getting any reprieve,” Chioma Anaebere said. “We're not getting any sort of respite from the pandemic. And you’re putting this on our communities as well. Like... have some empathy, have some mercy.”

And while protesting in a pandemic may be dangerous, Chioma Anaebere says that, for many, this issue is more important than their own personal health.

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Other Ways to Cope

Here are some other techniques health care workers recommended for taking care of one’s mental health during this challenging time:

Dr. Tiffany Chioma Anaebere, Emeryville: “Talking to friends and family helps a lot as well. And hearing people feel the same way that you do, and know that you're not isolated in your own experience.”

Dr. Georgia Davies, New Jersey: “I'm really big on my mental health and physical fitness, and I feel like physical being physically fit kind of helps with your mental health.

“One thing I had to do in the last two weeks is, I don't turn on the TV anymore to really watch the news at all, because I think I was also making me very anxious. … [I]t's always something new. It's always something different. So I think shutting that off is, kind of, helping me cope as well.”

Dr. Jessica Edwards, Texas: “...Being able to, you know, donate to an action PAC … volunteering with my local democratic society as a physician, volunteering and, you know, going door to door, knocking on doors … it's not always a fun experience, but that's the way that I can sort of get my emotions out now.”

President-Elect of the Alameda County Psychological Association Alice LoCicero: “The big four are: sleep, nutrition, exercise and social connection.”

Crisis Support Services of Alameda County Director Binh Au: “The message that we want to send our workers is that: please reach out for help. Treat yourself with the kindness and care that you would treat your patients, your colleagues, your clients. And think about self care as a necessary part of your job.”

More Resources

California state officials also compiled a list of mental health resources here.

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