COVID-19 UpdatesHCN News & Notes

Minorities Especially Vulnerable to Coronavirus, Mental-health Problems It Brings

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Black and Hispanic populations across the country — including Massachusetts — are disproportionately contracting COVID-19 and dying from it. This fact is drawing attention to the racial and socioeconomic disparities in health and healthcare in America.

But at the same time, minorities are also getting hit with another long-established racial inequity: mental-health treatment. Gándara Center, which specializes in minority mental health, is seeing a boom in the number of people it serves.

Indeed, COVID-19 presents a double jeopardy to minority communities as the pandemic takes not only a physical toll on them but also a psychological one. Almost half of Americans feel the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s a particular danger during social-distancing mandates, when isolation and anxiety are exacerbating people’s mental-health problems.

“This crisis is making life much more difficult for those we serve, including those in recovery and people who have yet to be treated for such problems as anxiety and depression,” said Gándara Center Outpatient Services Director Dr. Madeline Aviles-Hernandez. “Minorities have been — and continue to be — less likely to receive mental-health treatment.”

That problem in particular was the impetus for the founding of the Gándara Center in 1977, when no other agency in the area specifically met the needs of providing culturally sensitive care to the Hispanic community. Today, the Gándara Center specializes in Hispanic services, but also delivers services to African-Americans and other diverse populations. The agency recently added telehealth to its services, and its peer-recovery support centers are using virtual recovery coaches and virtual recovery events and meetings.

“Right now, thanks to Gov. Charlie Baker’s orders expanding access to telehealth, people in our communities have more access to our telehealth phone and video services,” Aviles-Hernandez said. “The people we serve are finding telehealth care extremely helpful as the pandemic causes society’s most vulnerable populations unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. These virtual services will help to avoid hospitalizations and emergency-room visits at a time when the healthcare system is strained because of COVID-19.”

Nationally, suicide hotlines are getting more calls daily, and experts say the trauma of the pandemic could cause a spike in substance use — something that happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Alcoholic-beverage sales have shot up across the country in the past month.

Meanwhile, Gándara Center’s mission to champion the underserved is more important now than ever. “The coronavirus crisis is highlighting the fact that communities of color have less access to mental healthcare and substance-use-disorder treatment, and we’re still working hard to change that,” Aviles-Hernandez said. “Our telehealth services are certainly helping.”