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“I Can’t Breathe:” Racial Injustice and Black Mental Health

By Brian Edmonds | June 30, 2020 | 6 min read | Community Health

Protest sign reads "end racism"

2020 was supposed to be an awesome year. The beginning of a new decade. A fresh start.

Fast forward to March 2020. We found ourselves in a worldwide pandemic. Many of us felt this year couldn’t get any worse. But 2020 stood up, stretched, and said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I’m just getting started.”

May 25, 2020.  George Floyd was murdered, and the whole world watched in horror. This isn’t the first Black man killed unjustly on video. But for many people, this felt different. This was a slow, painful execution. We watched this man as the life slowly left his body, the knee of an officer on his neck. Unapologetic. No remorse. Even as the Black man pleaded and begged, “I can’t breathe. Please. I can’t breathe.”  Then, on instinct, he cried out for his mother to save him.

Make no mistake about it.  This was a mentally traumatic event. Within a week of the video going public, anxiety and depression among African Americans skyrocketed. Before the video went viral, 36% of Black Americans showed clinical signs of anxiety and depression. A week later, that number had risen to 41%. That represents 1.4 million more people.

I can personally attest to the impact.

I have a two-year-old son who lights up my life. His name is Brayden. He’s innocent, full of joy and wonder, and has the energy to power a city.  And every day that passes, I know the time is coming that I’m going to have to shatter his innocence. Have that “dreaded talk” that all Black boys are given when they’re old enough. I will have to explain the struggles and hardships he’ll face growing up as a Black man in America. Counting down the days until that happens is quite a mental burden to carry.

Following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the law enforcement, my wife Danielle and I were sitting in our living room, watching Brayden play. When I looked over at my wife, she was crying. Everything she had been holding in finally came out. What set her off? She came across a picture of George Floyd where he was curled in his mother’s arms as a little boy.

Her mind instantly flashed back to a picture of her and Brayden in almost the exact same position.  It was as if Brayden momentarily took George’s place with that knee in his neck as the life slowly leaves his body. She could imagine him calling for her to save him.

I did my best to console her and tell her that everything was going to be okay, that this wouldn’t happen to Brayden. But in my head, I wasn’t completely sure I believed it.  How does a Black man dealing with pain and trauma himself comfort his family who’s dealing with their own trauma?

Me, my wife Danielle, and our son Brayden.

Let’s completely flip the script here. What does a white person whose eyes are finally open to the nastiness that is social injustice and systemic racism do? How do they deal with the guilt of white privilege, racial inequity, and not seeing sooner what has been happening for decades? What do we all do about this mental truckload that’s been dumped on us?

We talk. We let down the walls and protective layers and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We have to talk about the uncomfortable subjects. Address the issues head on. Reveal our emotions, our fears, and ultimately our hopes.

My company came out with a historic statement condemning racism and acknowledging the work that needs to be done. Leaders in the company made their own personal statements. They called out a system that is broken and vowed to not just talk about the problems but take action to begin solving them. What’s even better is I know their words and statements don’t ring hollow. I’ve seen firsthand the numerous investments Blue Cross NC has made in its communities and the commitment to making them a safer, healthier, more equitable, and ultimately better place for all of us.

Black mental health matters.

Visit the Black Mental Health Alliance, the AAKOMA Project, Melanin and Mental Health, or another organization for more information.

More importantly, I’m thankful to work for a company that’s invested in my mental health just as much as my physical health. Not long after Ahmaud Arbery was killed, I let my manager know that I needed to take a couple of days to get myself together mentally. It was the first time I’ve ever taken time off work take a break from the 24/7 mental grind of being a Black man. Taking some time to process and talk to people I trust was essential. The company also offers an Employee Assistance Program. It’s comforting to know that I can talk one-on-one with an experienced, licensed counselor for support.

Those mental health resources apply to more than just Blue Cross NC employees. Members of Blue Cross NC have a wealth of resources available to address their mental and behavioral health needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, members have access to telehealth (video and/or audio) visits. For anyone who’s reading this and feels hopeless, angry, depressed, or stressed, even if you aren’t a Blue Cross NC employee or member, talk to someone. Talking does not reveal weakness. It shows your strength.  It’s the strength to acknowledge that sometimes, everything is not okay.

Please understand that you aren’t alone. Many of us today are asking ourselves, “Am I okay? How am I really feeling?” Don’t be afraid to talk.  This is how we continue moving forward.

Trust me. 2020 ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We’re just getting started. We’re having life-changing conversations. We’re finding renewed hope. A better tomorrow is in reach for all of us.