‘It’s all just too much,’ I said, my hands covering my face as I sobbed

A deadly pandemic, another Black man killed by the police and three years of a racist president. African Americans, in particular, are paying a steep price in mental health.

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A protest march over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis made its way through downtown Chicago May 29, 2020, eventually closing off Ida B. Wells Parkway near the beginning of the Eisenhower Expressway.

A protest march over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis made its way through downtown Chicago May 29, 2020, eventually closing off Ida B. Wells Parkway near the beginning of the Eisenhower Expressway.

Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Days after the murder of George Floyd, everything just became too much.

I was in the middle of my typical morning routine — checking news alerts, heading to the kitchen for coffee — when several text messages flashed on my phone from friends expressing anguish over the murder and anger that the cops involved had not been criminally charged.

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I felt the same, reading those texts. And suddenly I had a flashback to that horrific video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling for nearly 9 minutes on a Black man’s neck until he suffocated.

I burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” my significant other asked in surprise.

“It’s all just too much,” I told him, hands covering my face as I sobbed.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I cried before that. I don’t cry easily, never have.

But at that moment, I couldn’t help it.

The psychological toll of relentless bad news — Floyd’s murder, the resulting civil unrest, a deadly pandemic, three years of an incompetent and racist president who could very well win a second term and finish destroying our increasingly fragile democracy — is a lot to bear these days.

Especially for African Americans, like me. We’re experiencing record levels of mental distress in the wake of Floyd’s murder, according to a recent Census Bureau report.

Within a week of Floyd’s murder, 41% of African Americans showed clinically significant signs of anxiety and depression — far higher than among any other race or ethnic group — on a Census Bureau survey.

Watching a Black man be suffocated to death — a man who could be our father, uncle, brother, cousin, nephew, neighbor or friend — will have that effect. Especially when it’s another in a long line of police killings of men who would still be alive except for the color of their skin.

As one of my Black colleagues puts it, “the PTSD is real, very real.”

Millions of Americans, of all backgrounds, are reeling from the relentless onslaught of bad news these days. We’re struggling to do everything possible to maintain sound mental health, to stay focused at work if we’re lucky enough to still have a job, to stay upbeat about the job hunt if we’re unemployed.

There’s no way to avoid the bad news when you’re a journalist.

Another colleague tells me she is functioning “day to day,” not sleeping well because she often jolts wide awake at 3 a.m.

“I can’t make it without Xanax,” she said.

Survey after survey shows that COVID-19 has made the entire country anxious, depressed, worried — you name it. A third of Americans show significant signs of clinical anxiety or depression because of the ongoing pandemic, a Census Bureau survey found last month.

And over half of Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, report that stress or worry related to COVID-19 has disrupted their sleeping or eating patterns and made chronic health conditions worse.

And while states are easing the strict stay-at-home orders that left so many of us feeling isolated from friends and family, there’s also the very real fear of a coronavirus resurgence.

A second wave would be scarier than the first.

Here again, Black Americans are paying a steeper price with our mental health. We’re more likely than white or Hispanic Americans to follow coronavirus news closely and talk about the pandemic “most or all of the time,” a Pew Research Center survey found.

Sadly, that should come as no surprise. African Americans are unfortunately more likely to die or become severely ill from COVID-19 — so it’s no wonder we talk about it more.

Brandi Jackson, a psychiatrist at Heartland Alliance Health’s Englewood Health Center, reminded me of the distrust many Black people have of the health care system as a whole. “There’s the fear of the disease itself,” she said. “And then they see these stay-at-home orders being lifted at the same time that they see more Black people are dying of the disease.”

So what do we do to stay sane?

Most important, experts tell us, is to acknowledge the distress. “It’s OK not to be OK,” as Andy Wade of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness told me.

Second, get support. In Illinois, you can use the Call4Calm text line. Text “TALK” to 5-5-2-0-2-0, answer a few questions and a professional in your area will return your call within 24 hours.

And my own favorite: think of the old Sam Cooke song, “A change is gonna come.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Lorraine Forte is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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