On Taking Care of Our Mental Health During COVID-19: An Interview with Jan Desper Peters

Our BlackHer Shero is Jan Desper Peters,  director of strategic partnerships at a Better Tomorrow Starts Today (“BTST” Services), a healthcare company that provides outpatient mental health services, psychiatric rehabilitation (psychiatric mentoring), and medication management. Previously, Peters was executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance, a membership and advocacy organization.  In 2019, she worked with Taraji P. Henson’s Foundation on the first Can We Talk Conference on Black mental health.

BlackHer was pleased to hear her thoughts on how Black women can use mental health services and other methods to cope in these stressful times. 

Can you tell us about BTST and your role there?

BTST is a health organization with four locations in Maryland.  Our headquarters is in Baltimore. Most of the services we provide are in the community and in homes. We provide medication management, mental health therapy, and psychiatric rehabilitation, which some may know as psychiatric mentoring. We provide services to children, teens, and adults, ages 4 to 64, many of whom are African-American.

In 2019, BTST provided 144,000 individual mental health services to the community.  94% of our clients are Medicaid recipients. We believe everyone deserves quality healthcare in an aesthetically pleasing setting and to be treated with dignity. 

As director of strategic partnerships, I am responsible for cultivating and maintaining relationships with business and community partners while developing strategies to increase revenue for BTST and its nonprofit, BTST Cares.

I identify opportunities for our team to share information to reduce the stigma around mental health through social media, radio, tv and in print. It is an honor to do so.  I currently host a podcast called Meeting You Where You Are.  On the podcast, we host subject matter experts from a variety of disciplines and share how almost any topic affects your mental health. 

I recently interviewed Annette March-Grier, founder of Roberta’s House, a grief and loss support center in Baltimore. We talked about loss which is very timely given the pandemic. Right now, people are experiencing loss and grief and are not able to process that through traditional rituals and ceremonies. Our podcast provides tools and tips during these trying times.

We are seeing crazy stories about COVID-19 and Black people.  Today, we are dying from this disease at higher numbers than other groups in many cities.  How is this affecting us mentally as a community? 

We know that Black people have some of the worst rates of hospitalization and death as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the underlying health conditions that exacerbate this are caused by structural racism. Among other things, structural racism has denied us access to affordable health insurance,  quality health care, and good nutrition. These social determinants of health have led to many of our existing health problems. African-Americans have some of the highest rates of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and asthma. These comorbidities make catching COVID-19 more dangerous and deadly for us.  Seeing each other get sick and die from COVID-19 is painful and a reminder of the harm we have suffered as a result of structural racism in the United States. 

Are we going to experience this trauma differently than others?

It has been said that “When white folks get a cold, Black folks get the flu.” We always get it worse. 

Black people and poor people will experience this differently. The reasons are endless. Many of our brothers and sisters do not have the choice to “work from home” and are deemed essential workers. So they continue to work, risking infecting those in their homes. In addition to the stress of job loss, sheltering-in-place, possibly getting sick and being more likely to die, we also struggle with the stress of being Black in America.  The aftermath of this pandemic on our mental health will require years of intervention. 

Also, there is economic trauma that many are experiencing as a result of COVID-19.  Most jobs that are being lost are in the service industry – restaurant staff, Uber drivers, bus drivers, etc. A majority of these are jobs held by brown people, African-Americans, and Latinos. Many of us will be struggling to make ends meet as we wait for our stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.

What can Black women do to take care of ourselves now?

There are lots of things we can do to alleviate stress: bubble baths, reading, taking walks, having Zoom meetings or phone calls with friends, spending time with a significant other. Most importantly, take the time to love up on yourself. Stop for a few moments each day to meditate on why you are wonderful and remind yourself that you will make it through. 

We should do all these things, but also accept that we may get sad about what’s going on.  It’s ok to be sad and to not be ok. We should acknowledge that we are sad but shouldn’t wallow in it. Don’t stay there.  Straighten your crown and remember who you are. Keep moving forward, one day at a time. Don’t sink into the sadness and remember that even during this time of physical distancing, many therapists are still open for business through telehealth.

What if the stress and sadness get to be too much, and you feel depression or panic coming on? How can Black people deal with this crisis emotionally?  Therapists can be expensive.  

If your feelings become overwhelming, seek out a mental health professional. You should not try to solve persistent depression and feelings of panic on your own. Ask friends if they have a therapist that they recommend.  Or do some research on the internet and reach out on your own to make an appointment with a psychologist or therapist who appeals to you. When talking to the therapist about the appointment, ask them about their fees and which insurance plans they take. Many therapists and psychologists operate on a sliding fee scale and do not charge everyone the same price.  You may be able to afford therapy regardless of your income. Just this week, the Boris L. Henson Foundation launched a program to help identify a therapist and pay for up to five sessions.

There are also forms of therapy that are less expensive than the traditional office visit.  Some apps offer therapy at lower prices. Research and find the option that works for you.  

It’s time for the Miracle Question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow, and it is a year from now, April 2021.  The miracle has occurred for Black women. What’s happened? 

Since we are experiencing so much suffering and death from COVID-19, Black people will have finally realized that no one is coming to save us. We will have a coordinated effort to maximize our talent pool and to share resources. Black people will be sick and tired of being sick and tired and will push society forward to address the disparate health and economic issues that COVID-19 has laid bare. Black women will lead this charge.

A year from now, I pray we have a President who really values all people, has read and understands the Constitution and who fears God.  For that President and for all of society, this crisis should be a wakeup call. Black folks have been disparaged and treated unfairly for centuries as it relates to our social, emotional, and physical health in this country.  When the miracle happens, Black women and men will have the mental health support that they need and deserve. When the miracle occurs, we will have successfully fought to obtain the overall healthcare that we deserve as U.S. citizens, and the funding and legislation to completely eliminate the economic and social disparities we have long suffered due to structural racism. Because we are not truly free until we are all free!




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