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caption: Sunset at Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle.
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Sunset at Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Summer forecast for Washington state: pandemic blues, frustration over racism, and social change?

This could be a long, hard summer, according to mental health experts.

Take the Covid-19 pandemic and layer it over the much longer-running pain of racism, and that could mean frustration and isolation for many.

Turns out, that prognosis is predictable: We humans tend to react to disasters in stages, says Dr. Kira Mauseth, a psychologist who researches how people cope during large-scale disasters, like the earthquake in Haiti ten years ago.

Mauseth is part of a team advising the state of Washington on how we might cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. She said that within three to six months of a disaster's onset, people tend to respond in consistent ways.

Those responses include: Aggression, violence, law-breaking, substance use, anger, and “very expressive feelings,” she said.

On the other side: Isolation, withdrawal, shutting down, and failing to reach out for needed help. Our brain is handling stress differently now, so we respond differently.

And, Mauseth said, at the stage of the response that syncs with this summer, a lot of issues come to a head.

“Any kind of underlying problems, whether they're within a home or a family — in terms of child abuse, domestic violence, ... or even bigger social issues — are exacerbated,” Mauseth said.

Bigger social issues, including racism.

That’s, the underlying disaster, said Dr. Claudelle Glasgow, a psychologist in Seattle who works with Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“The American Black psyche, as a ground, has been drenched in systemic racism,” she said. “Regardless of the rest of the nation’s purview or understanding or conscious knowing of the fact that this is happening.”

Glasgow calls the United States “a nation of extreme dissonance.”

“You live in a world where that is not acknowledged — your basic reality is not acknowledged.”

Racism is a trauma, Glasgow said, though it’s not formally recognized as such in the medical and psychological fields. It creates chronic and pervasive psychological stress, and it may lead to symptoms of physical and mental illness.

“And that's in a normal day ... if there is such a thing, and then you add Covid, and a pandemic.”

The pandemic restricts access to health services and community, she said, and creates more unemployment and isolation.

As for people’s reactions this summer, Glasgow says it depends on what happens next in society.

“Is this — what we're doing right now, which is more than we've done during the Civil Rights time and we have more technology, more reach — going to be enough? Or are they going to let us die?”

On the other hand, Glasgow believes addressing racism properly across American society would satisfy the constitution's intended purpose — equality for all beings — and would address the physical, environmental, and psychological stresses of this society.

Others are expecting the energy and desire for change to continue through the summer.

“The Civil Rights [Movement] of the 60s was a prelude to where we are right now, and this moment is a catalyst for where we’re going to go,” said Dr. Theopia Jackson, the president of the Association of Black Psychologists and chair of the clinical psychology program at Saybrook University.

The way she sees it, a few factors are combining to create the current energy around racism in the United States.

First, there are factions of white people grappling with race in different ways: Some people are awakening from a “racial slumber” and are newly reckoning with racism, while others are doubling down and “embracing their racist ideology." Others are continuing their long-standing work in anti-racism. At the same time, there’s what she calls “a collective movement for Black self-determination.”

“How are we going to define for ourselves who we are and demand to be treated accordingly?” Jackson said.

That movement extends into fields like psychology, she said.

“We're holding our own disciplines accountable,” Jackson said. “As a Black psychologist, I'm sitting in the American Psychological Association saying, ‘Okay, wait a minute. Now, what are you going to do about this? Not, 'What are you going do out there; what are we going to do in here?'”

When it comes to forecasting mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic in Washington state, Jackson is calling for more culturally specific analyses, that account for the unresolved grief and racial trauma present in many communities of color — particularly Black communities. Important trends in specific communities can be masked when researchers roll people from different backgrounds into one universal analysis.

For example, the behavioral health forecasts prepared for the state of Washington predict an increase in suicide risk this fall.

Jackson recently contributed to a report presented to the Congressional Black Caucus, which showed a steady, disproportionate increase in suicide rates among Black children — that's as rates for white children have declined.

“Black youth as a whole experience different amounts and types of psychological and emotional stressors than white youth,” the report said.

As for the pandemic, it affects everybody. But Jackson said those effects show up differently, depending on the interplay between gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and race.

“You've got to take a deep dive in there and figure out, how does this manifest itself for people who are already going through a certain level of trauma?”