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How businesses can address mental health & racial disparities

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Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health Riana Elyse Anderson joins Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita and Anjalee Khemlani to discuss racial disparities of those impacted by the coronavirus.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, the coronavirus outbreak has exposed some pretty troubling racial inequalities within our health-care system. Take a look at this chart released by Brookings Institute taking a look at the disparities here between black and Hispanic/Latino death rates for those who are 45 to 54-year-olds, at least six times higher than for whites. And you see the big difference you see in the other age groups within that chart as well.

Our next guest says that's leading to elevated stress and trauma levels in black and brown communities. Riana Elyse Anderson is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior, and Health Education at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, and Anjalee Khemlani is also here to join us in on the conversation. Riana, it's good to have you on today.

I want to see, you know, how you think we should be viewing these numbers because these statistics have been pretty well told over the last three months. But the thing that you're trying to highlight here is that it's not just about the numbers as it relates to the pandemic. There is a much broader issue, the ripple effects, if you will, that we should be looking at.

RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: Certainly. I think when we're looking at the dual pandemic that's happening in particular of racism and what's going on with COVID, we're seeing numbers exponentially raised or black folks in particular, black and Latinx folks. And as it got to those last few weeks of March in which we already saw a threefold increase in things like anxiety and depression for certain communities, watching the death of someone that looks like them on TV has really shot that number quite high.

AKIKO FUJITA: How significant is that number? Help us understand how the number of deaths and the number of case counts that were significantly higher in black communities, for example, has led to the trauma and stress?

RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: So in looking at January's numbers of anxiety and depression, for example, you're looking at a threefold increase even before some of the police encounters have occurred in the past few weeks. So even before a second pandemic, if you will, took place, we're looking at numbers that were three times as exaggerated as they were just a few short months ago.

So those numbers mean quite a bit, not only for, again, as you indicated, knowing someone who's passed away, perhaps experiencing COVID yourself, perhaps moving your job. There's so many factors that go into those numbers that the numbers themselves don't really even tell the whole story.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And, Doctor, Anjalee here. I know that one of the things that's been increasingly a conversation is also how this affects in the workplace. And obviously with our audience being that, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about, you know, what steps companies could even take? I know there's a lot of focus on mental-health tools, but what is it that's really needed that goes beyond that?

RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: Yeah, so I think two things in particular would be really helpful. If we're investing in telehealth as an example, that covers the provision of services, apps, et cetera. And it's also thinking about how people can utilize that telehealth. So some people may not have the access to devices or internet. So when we're thinking about investment, it's not just to the platforms or the services. You're really thinking about how do we get folks the tools that they need to even engage in these types of services?

The second, in thinking about what we're providing the employees themselves. So if someone in the home lost their job or someone has to pay for an unexpected funeral or if there's child care that's now lost and you're thinking about how do I fund all of these things on such a limited budget now? We have to pay people a living and affordable wage. We have to really think about is this the time or a bonus so that we can ensure that our employees are well themselves before coming back to work?

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And, Doctor, one of the things that I wanted to just follow up with is when you're looking at, you know, the investment in, say, like a corporate space versus for essential employees, it seems like there's a very big difference in the access. And this is going to trace down to even when it comes to contact tracing. And so I'm curious if you have any insight into that as well about, you know, how we'll be able to go about relieving the stress for essential workers differently?

RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: Yeah, it's a great question, and it's challenging when you know that there are differences and disparities with respect to who is an essential worker. Who has been showing up the past several months despite what they're seeing on the news and the fears that might be in their community?

So if I had to argue, do we see disparities even within groups of people? absolutely the folks who have been on the front having to see coworkers inevitably get sick or having to consider what am I bringing home when I'm going from work to home?

So in that investment, we certainly have to think about, again, if people are shouldering an entire family or community based on their income, how do we make sure that they have the financial resources to help their families or communities? How do we ensure that part of the work is them seeking some sort of help? Can we get a 30-minute required, you know, group session, or can we bring someone in to facilitate time for them to unpack? Because undoubtedly there are disparities with those groups.

AKIKO FUJITA: And, Doctor, you know, given that there is a broader conversation that's happening right now on race and there are a lot of companies that are looking internally to say, well, what exactly should we be doing, what's the conversation that you think should be happening within the health-care community, specifically the structural changes that need to be made so that these issues are addressed and not repeated down the road?

RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: Sure. So one thing that we know about racial dialogue is that it tends to spike after really tense instances in the world. So it's no surprise that after George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks or a number of people who have been impacted by racism in the past few weeks, it's no doubt that these conversations have heightened after those events. But what we see is that those conversations tend to stop after a while.

What would be really important is having this continued conversation that we often see within the black community. It's something that comes up quite frequently that families have to engage in or schools or communities around this idea of race and racism. It has to be a continuous conversation for everyone because communities aren't living separately. We all have some sort of intertwined systemic relation with each other.

So you can't say that race is only impacting a certain part of the population. It's impacting us all. And certainly with health care, we know that transmission, treatment, and mortality have been impacted layer by layer by the systemic racism.

So it's not just one aspect of health care that needs to be focused on. It's the entire way that we view people of color, the treatment of them, the ways in which they can access this type of treatment. It's a systemic process.

So those conversations need to happen continuously, and they need to happen within the training of folks who are going to the health-care service.

AKIKO FUJITA: Riana Elyse Anderson joining us from the University of Michigan. Appreciate your time today.

RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: Thank you.