Visual by Euree Kim

On June 13, Alternatives to Calling the Police During Mental Health Crises and the #LetUsBreathe Collective co-hosted the online event Dialogue: Surviving COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health Crises as part of the Healing Justice Retreat Series. The monthly sessions center Black, Indigenous, and people of color activists, healers, and health care practitioners. In this space, session participants and community members can share their lived wisdom and knowledge in relation to social justice and the decriminalization of mental health, said Euree Kim, the co-founder of Alternatives to Calling the Police During Mental Health Crises.  

“It is really important to talk about the mental health needs and challenges, especially during this time,” Kim said. “Often this is not being talked about a lot, and even if it happens, it often centers a very white perspective without considering the many factors affecting [our] communities.”

Damayanti Wallace, an activist with GoodKids MadCity, moderated the open discussion with members of Assata’s Daughters, Brave Space Alliance, the Chicago Torture and Justice Center, and Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD). Miguel Lopez, an OCAD organizer who was scheduled to attend, was unable to do so after his brother was deported by ICE just days before, so a fellow member stepped in as a panelist.  

While organizing the event, Kim stressed the importance of hearing personal stories about surviving COVID-19 as opposed to merely reading analytics. In that context, “we can feel that voice and how many people are affected by COVID-19,” they said. “We can make a virtual connection.” 

Wallace kicked off the event by asking panelists how the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted their overall mental health and what their biggest struggles had been.

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health “didn’t start to kick in until like a few weeks later when I realized that I couldn’t exist as I normally do,” said Brittney Thomas, the director of programs at Brave Space Alliance. “I was just reaching a point of security and ability in my personal life [before] stuff hit the fan.” 

Many of the panelists described similar emotional and personal breaks in life, social foundations, routines, and safety as they watched COVID-19 spread at alarming rates, along with the recent uprisings against police brutality and oppression. Combined with the mental health crisis COVID-19 can trigger, these events seemed to cascade all at once. 

Theodora (Theo) Cunningham, revolutionary support coordinator at Assata’s Daughters, paused and explained how COVID-19 had only intensified existing struggles. “[In] February and before, I had a lot of life going on, [and] it was not rosy—not easy by any means,” she said. “And then, we have March, which was bad shit, COVID…. And, then of course in the last couple of weeks, we got bad shit—tongue-in-cheek I’ve been saying bad shit, race war.” 

Overlapping social injustices have been disorientating for many who were struggling with balance and survival against disproportionate disparities even before the pandemic hit. Now, COVID-19 has pushed many communities into a busy intersection where marginalization is gaining speed against individuals who are impacted from nearly all corners, Cunningham said.  

“I realized that the things that I needed to sustain my well-being were being altered significantly,” Thomas said. And not only that, but there’s a pandemic disproportionately impacting Black people, and then the uprisings. My anxiety has been through the roof, but I’ve been trying to be honest about how my body is responding to the things happening around me, and its impacts on well-being and safety.”

Over time, COVID-19 took shape as it reached closer to communities and individuals. The pandemic shifted from being faceless numbers and statistics to names and personal connections between shared lives.

“I had to have tough conversations with my parents about staying home from work, even though for a lot of people that’s actually not an option,” said Irene Romulo, a community organizer at OCAD. “As a child of immigrant parents who don’t speak English, and don’t have a lot of knowledge of how hospitals work, I took on a lot of the work of figuring that shit out,” she said. “And also having to talk to my dad to try to get him to tell me what he felt, what he was experiencing. When we first had to take him to the hospital, he would not admit to being sick, that he couldn’t breathe, or that he wasn’t feeling well. When the ambulance came, they didn’t want to take him.” 

Romulo said her father wound up in the intensive care unit, a couple of other family members also became sick, and her grandfather passed away from COVID-19. “It’s been a really difficult time for a lot of us, I think, just having to deal with the grief that comes from watching so many people around you having to deal with unknowns and having to deal with death,” she said.  

Many panelists also described living in a state of both knowing and not knowing when dealing with the constant worry of COVID-19 possibly killing their loved ones. Discussing her father’s hospitalization, Cunningham said “trying to coordinate his medical care without being able to go in the building…a Black man is in there without an advocate, is very stressful.” 

“It’s challenging for us to change our whole way of life, and it’s not based on change for good. It’s based on change [where] you could die,” said LaTanya Jenifor Sublett, a Survivors and Family Advisory Council member at the Chicago Torture Justice Center. 

“I am formerly incarcerated, so to be free is really difficult,” Sublett said. “You tell yourself for years, ‘if I just make it out of this.’ You become your own kind of superhero. Then, for COVID to come, restrict your movement, and restrict how you live. There is something that goes on in your head. How am I free? And I can’t go anywhere? There’s a chance I can go somewhere, become ill, and die.” 

Within a few months, COVID-19 transformed from distant information about a global pandemic to insurmountable human loss and grief. Collapsing aspects of life are being upheld in a tight balance between the pandemic’s unfolding impact and a shifting world. 

Wallace then asked the panelists how they and their communities are supported, and which of their needs were not being met.  

Sublett said she has to go outside of her South Shore community for resources. “If we had those things to begin with, we wouldn’t see the disparity in the lives that we live,” she said. “But it takes a crisis for us to finally say we never had it, they never wanted us to have it and so now we have to create it. 

“The South Shore area needs some help. And I’m also exhausted,” she added. 

Cunningham said the lack of resources in communities is a reflection  of the “flaws of capitalism,” and Romulo described it as a “failure of capitalism and how we can’t depend on the institutions that exist for our care.” COVID-19 has demonstrated how Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities are intentionally cut from institutional lifelines: the pandemic’s timeline is a reflection of historical inequalities in the U.S. 

“I see a lot of folks blaming people who are out on the street corners hanging out without masks, or who are out in the alley, drinking with their friends, or, who are out gathering in groups, but sometimes I think we may forget that for a lot of people that’s their way of dealing with all of this pain,” Romulo said. “Not everybody has access to therapists or spaces where they can share their feelings openly and be vulnerable or even have a place to be. They don’t have a home where they can just be by themselves in their thoughts or even being alone…often the way that our care or our mental healthcare looks like is being in groups of people.”  

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  The historical denial of institutional resources and environmental stability both contribute to the lack of lifelines for communities to address pain and seek support. “Historically, Black communities are underserved and under-resourced, and seeing community members have to try to figure out how to survive during a pandemic has been very difficult to watch,” Thomas said. Cunningham added, “Black communities and support don’t often go together and that is a fundamental issue.”  

The panelists discussed not only factors but also ways Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities live with marginalized foundations as underlying conditions during COVID-19.   

 “People literally cannot work and also, therefore, can’t provide for themselves and their families, and that’s not their fault,” Cunningham said. “Capitalism has created that mythology that it is personal responsibility.”  

“We should already have access to all the things that we need, even before this pandemic,” Romulo added. “Not even the jobs that we should have—I am talking about the things that we need to live without having to work. All of this just shows all of the gaps that our communities have experienced for so long.”

“So I think there are underlying conditions,” Sublett said. “If we had those things to begin with, we wouldn’t see the disparity in the lives that we live. But it takes a crisis for us to finally say we never had it, they never wanted us to have it and so now we have to create it.”  

“I feel like this moment is going to radicalize a lot of people because we’re realizing a lot of the things that the government has been telling us we can’t get, they exist,” Thomas said. “These things do exist. And the only reason they haven’t been happening is because they didn’t want [them] to.”  

Romulo said that despite lack of institutional accountability, people are stepping up to fill in voids of critical care. “We know what we need and the help to provide that,” she said. “But it sucks to see that people, with the least monetary resources, are the ones that take out their last five dollars that they have and give it to somebody else who needs it [the] most. And that’s beautiful to see, but it also sucks that that’s what we need to do.” 

“It’s been really beautiful to see the amount of mutual aid and people shifting their language to be community-oriented and really pouring into communities,” Thomas added. “I don’t want to see it die down once the pandemic has passed. I definitely want people to be more encouraged and inclined to support their communities and remove themselves from this individualistic mindset that a lot of Americans have. So, I hope we continue to use this wonderful mutual aid language and continue to support our community members and not rely on people outside of those communities to do it for us. 

I really hope that folks push for our divine, human right to have the things that we need to sustain our well-being,” Thomas said. “Nobody should be able to dictate who gets that right.”

As the final question, Wallace asked what panelists and their communities currently need, what support strategies should be continued, and what new ones should be developed.

“When I drive down 79th Street on the East Side, I look at what could be businesses and [see] that it’s all torn down,” Sublett said. There are places where individuals could live, that are boarded up. I think my community needs a chance.” 

As additional resources dwindled, Cunningham noted, the city closed mental health clinics. She said she perceives people’s behaviors as a reflection of our environments and relations in communities that we witness. “There is a whole lot of trauma and for as many humans as there are on earth there are also that many number of trauma responses. It may look like really isolating and going into yourself and not talking to people; it may look like lashing out; it may look like not really wanting to focus on emotions. It may be to cry and to really feel those emotions,” she said. “As we’re moving and interacting with each other, everybody to some extent is in their trauma body.”  

Despite the pressure of surviving a pandemic, economic deprivation, mental health crises, and widespread inequality, the panelists agreed that current dynamics have the potential to lead to community driven, transformative futures.  

“My community needs a chance to say, ‘let’s start over, let’s rebuild,’” Sublett said. “It’s enough money, and it’s enough dreams and there are enough skills in the communities of People of Color and for us to change the whole world. I know this. I know that we could be so self-sufficient…. This is the time to rebuild and to connect, and to redeem people of color and our dreams, in our communities, and for our communities.” 

Seeing the current moment as an opportunity to rebuild, Romulo said, “What we’re seeing is making the call for abolition even stronger. And remembering that doesn’t just mean getting rid of the carceral state and the prison industrial complex, but actually investing, building, imagining, and creating all of the things that we need to take care of each other and to really thrive.” 

She added, “Even if you don’t call it abolition or you don’t define yourself as an abolitionist, what we’re experiencing makes those needs more real. We don’t need all these systems to continue incarcerating, deporting, or everything that has led us to this point.”  

“Seeing the benefits of widespread mutual aid is so beautiful,” Thomas said. “People not relying [on] these systems and institutions that exist to help sustain them has been the most wonderful thing to see. And I’m so happy there’s so many people realizing that it’s all shit.”    

Toward the end of the event, Thomas delivered the takeaway message: “Abolition Now. Defund the Police. All Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Abolish ICE. Black Trans Women Matter. Protect Black Trans Women. I would like to see folks stop excluding Black LGBTQ+ folks from the social justice movements because they have contributed a shit-ton over the years. They are always at the forefront fighting.

“And if we’re all fighting the state, and if we’re all in this together, if we want liberation for all Black folks, we cannot exclude Black LGBTQ+ folks because they are Black people that exist as well,” Thomas said. “And so I just really want to add that to the conversation, I want to push people to talk about that more and be more supportive of Black trans women because their life expectancy is 35 years old. And it’s simply because they’re being brutally murdered for existing. And that is not something that should be ignored and more people need to talk about it and more people need to acknowledge, support, and uplift organizations that have Black trans women in leadership roles, because it’s not common, and it’s bullshit that it’s not because Black trans people have contributed a shit ton to movements over the years.” 

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 Jocelyn is a tree hugger and contributing editor to the Weekly. She last wrote about how three Black-led organizations are organizing power and healing during COVID-19.

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