Tackling Mental Health Challenges For Women

The events of 2020 brought into high relief the urgent need for mental health resources in the workplace

By Carolyn M. Brown

Stress levels have been at an all-time high. COVID-19 and the practices to prevent its spread—quarantining, social distancing, wearing masks—coupled with job losses, have given rise to anxiety, depression, substance use, and even acts of violence. Compounding matters, heightened awareness about systemic racism in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and a bitter political divide are splintering relationships, reaching a tipping point with the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Feelings of anxiety, panic, and anguish are the top three challenges in managing mental well-being today, says Shavonda Sumter, associate vice president of Behavioral Health Services at Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Center in New Jersey. “First, there is the panic and fear of the unknown and drastic lifestyle changes during this historic pandemic,” she says. “There is anxiety with working from home, helping kids learn remotely, sheltering in place with a spouse, and trauma brought on by and fear of world events. Then there’s anguish, the grief that comes from not just the loss of a loved one due to COVID but the loss of job stability or a normal routine.”

Women’s mental health is in crisis. According to 500 assessments of US workers by Total Brain from February through June 2020, 83 percent of women compared to 36 percent of men reported significant increases in depression. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 53 percent of women reported significant negatively impacted mental health, compared to 37 percent of men.

Even before the pandemic, women tended to bear the burden of caregiver, handling household chores, overseeing family finances, and managing loved ones’ health care. Women tend to put themselves last. “Self-check-ins must be a top priority,” says clinical psychologist Dr. LaToya Gaines. “A lot of times, we’re sort of on autopilot and don’t take the time daily to see how we’re feeling.”

Recent events have impacted everyone, but some women of color have had to carry an additional burden. Social injustice and racial incidents add to the already burdensome emotional load on Black women, who internalize the small, implicit, systemic, and structural racist biases that happen every day. Anti-Asian discrimination and xenophobic assaults increased significantly during the pandemic. Hate crimes against Latinos have steadily risen since 2019.

People of color are experiencing traumatic responses to racism and are suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) due to visible and invisible threats. “It causes hypervigilance,” Dr. Gaines explains. “Because you are always trying to protect yourself from danger, you are always looking for it. Any type of racial trauma, whether microaggressions at work or being stopped by the police, can trigger the body’s stress response and lead to health problems.”

Companies’ new role: mental health support

Companies cannot ignore their role in supporting employees’ emotional well-being, says Tracy L. Salmon, owner of TLS Consulting Solutions LLC, which specializes in DEI training. Transparency and open communication are paramount. Otherwise, “the struggles employees are facing may go unrecognized, which could impact their productivity and job satisfaction,” she adds.

According to a survey published on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website, 56 percent of employees report that anxiety and stress impacts performance, and 72 percent say that it carries over to their personal life. During these unprecedented times, “just as it is vital that family check in on family, and friends check in on friends, employers need to check in on employees to make sure they are doing their best to remain in a good mental space,” says Salmon, who has worked as an EEO/affirmative action officer and HR manager. “One minute a person could be facilitating a Zoom meeting and 20 minutes later could be curled up in a fetal position in the bedroom trying to process what’s going on around her.”

Part of checking in is listening to employees and having courageous conversations about the state of the world. She suggests that CEOs do companywide checkups, such as town halls, at least two or three times a year, and that supervisors conduct bimonthly checkups with their teams.

Salmon also points to available resources such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), which address issues like substance use, spouse or family turmoil, legal aid, financial assistance, childcare, and mental health problems. EAPs, be they internal or outsourced, generally provide counseling, treatment, or referrals.

Too often employees are unaware of services and resources available to them in the workplace. They fail to contact their health insurance providers about coverage. Or out of concern about anonymity, they’re afraid to reach out to HR about mental health issues. Employees’ privacy, however, is protected under federal and state regulations.

The stigma of having a mental health issue exists in communities of color and prevents people from seeking mental health providers. Instead, some turn to spiritual advisors. Seeing a therapist is less taboo among BIPOC millennials. Sumter says the more we talk about mental health care, the more it becomes normalized.

It also helps that therapists and psychiatrists of color are being highlighted in the media, which makes a difference in the cultural connection to patients, says Dr. Luana Marques, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Data suggest patients are able to express themselves better to people who are similar to them—a Black woman speaking with a Black therapist or a woman whose first language is Spanish speaking to a Latina therapist,” she explains.

You want a therapist who is not only trained to help you explore your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, but also comfortable talking about issues of gender discrimination or systemic racism, says Dr. Marques, who serves as president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

If you or a coworker need counseling, interview potential therapists. Ask about their specialties, background, frequency of sessions, benchmark for progress, and types of treatments offered for anxiety, depression, and trauma.

Last year, Dr. Marques’s team created an online course, Mental Health for All, to provide evidence-based coping mechanisms for the emotional strain brought on by the pandemic.

Keep in mind that the brain is another organ, Dr. Marques says. “The same way you take care of your physical body, there are things you can do to build resilience for your brain.” DW

Carolyn M. Brown is an award-winning journalist, author, playwright, and the founder of True Color Project.


Self-Check and Self-Care

It is normal to experience bad days triggered by stress. Perhaps you have a deadline at work and you’re not eating or sleeping well. Your stress is a response to something external or overwhelming, says clinical psychologist Dr. LaToya Gaines. “Once you meet that deadline, the stress goes away.” What’s not normal, she says, is two more weeks of missing work, not engaging in hobbies you enjoy, or using a sleeping aid because your mind is racing at night.

Understand what things make you feel overwhelmed and learn to match coping skills with your states of being, advises Dr. Gaines. “Check your energy levels throughout the day. Think of a thermometer on a scale of 10, with 4 to 6 being the ideal range—you’re feeling content, you have a healthy energy level, you can function well. One to 3 is when you have low energy, you don’t want to get out bed, you don’t want to do the activities you usually do. The high range, 7 to 10, is a period of high energy, intense anxiety, extreme insomnia, impulsive behaviors, you’re easily distracted or annoyed.”

If you’re in the high range, says Dr. Gaines, do things to calm down like going for a walk, listening to music, taking deep breaths, or meditating. If you’re in the low range, it’s important to move. Do strenuous exercise, go for a run, or dance around the house. Use aromatherapy to engage your senses.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org), prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through education, practice, and research.

Ethel’s Club (ethelsclub.com), online wellness and social space for people of color, offering mental health resources and virtual events.

Headspace (headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app), an app (free and subscription versions) offering guidance on mediation and mindfulness skills.

Inclusive Therapists (inclusivetherapists.com) offers a safe and simple way to find mental health care providers servicing marginalized populations.

Liberate (liberatemeditation.com), daily meditation app designed for the Black experience and BIPOC communities.

Mental Health America (mhanational.org) promotes mental health and prevents mental illness through advocacy, education, research, and services. Provides free screening test.

SAMHSA National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP [4357]), free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral and information service.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org/Home) provides advocacy, education, support, and awareness for individuals and families affected by mental illness.

Therapy for Black Girls (therapyforblackgirls.com), an online space offering mental health resources, including a weekly podcast conversation with a licensed psychologist.

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