The grueling and combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police greatly strained Black Americans across the country in 2020, going into 2021, and to this day. Psychologically speaking, the negative impact is hard to fathom, even by experts.

That includes right here in the rural Appalachian mountains, where African American households and communities are often overlooked in research. A group of graduate students in the Department of Psychology seek to remedy that by gaining more knowledge about the unique and challenging experiences of stress, trauma, and resilience with Black and African American communities in Southwest Virginia.

The topic is the dissertation of Janey Dike, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying under Russell Jones, a renowned expert in trauma psychology in both natural and technological disasters. Working alongside Dike is Brianna George, a fourth-year doctoral student who studies trauma and healing in Black communities and is also working in Jones’ Stress and Copping Lab, also like the department, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Using a Graduate Research Development Program grant from the Virginia Tech Graduate School, Dike and George have started to survey Black Americans in Montgomery and Roanoke counties about their mental health issues and needs. The surveys are in an online format, and the data has not been analyzed yet, but both women have had eye-opening conversations with Black Appalachians.

“Through other lab endeavors that focused on Black Appalachians, our lab has also learned of and has been struck by the unique experiences of Black Appalachians, which are not often openly advertised,” Dike and George said. (The two answered several emailed questions in unison.) “For example, we spoke with Black members of our community and found that many individuals described living in Appalachia as an isolating experience. Given these striking events and observations, our lab found it important to research the ways that Black Appalachians were processing and working through both COVID and racial injustice.”

Epidemiologists for months have said COVID disproportionately impacted people of color, especially Black Americans. The team’s original intent was to use a community American Psychological Association Division 45 grant to investigate the barriers to mental health care experienced by many Black individuals in the New River Valley, be they geographic, financial, or another cause. The grant wasn’t successful, hence the Graduate Research Development Program grant. “At the time of the pandemic and co-occurring racial injustice in 2020, we felt that this was the best time to continue our work for this community through the current study,” said Dike, who is from central Maryland and worked as a journalist before going to graduate school.

As they were sharing surveys, Dike and George did indeed ask about those barriers. According to Dike, “several people discussed a lack of trust in the health care system and a lack of providers of color, so it will be interesting to do the full analysis.” She also found that many participants reported receiving a good deal of “informal mental health support” from their communities, such as families and churches.

Research has, of course, shown that people with strong social support networks are better able to cope with trauma and stress compared to people who are isolated or do not have the same support. “During these difficult times — the pandemic and racial injustice — many people have come together to support one another in many ways,” said George, who is from Virginia Beach. “From wearing their masks and offering to pick up groceries for their immunocompromised community members to protesting and advocating for racial justice for Black Americans, a collective sense of altruism and generosity has moved to the forefront.”

The two added, “Although misinformation and self-concern have also been prevalent throughout the pandemic, these pockets of selflessness are what keep us optimistic in such difficult times.”

What’s next? George and Dike want to expand the study into more rural communities across Southwest Virginia. The Black population in Montgomery and Roanoke counties are more populace, of course, compared to places such as Wythe and Smyth counties. Blacksburg, with its student population is, the researchers said, a “bubble.”

The study could likely become a long-term project for the Stress and Copping Lab. “I expect this work to have extremely important implications for further understanding the lived experiences of Black Virginians in the wake of a global pandemic and a heightened resurgence of discussion surrounding race in the United States,” Jones wrote in a College of Science award recommendation letter for Dike. “This work will also underscore important avenues of change for serving the mental health needs of minoritized groups while being cognizant of how to build upon imperative existing strengths.”

Two additional researchers, former lab-mate Amelia Tankersley and second-year graduate student Lindsay Mongan, also contributed to the study.

“Through identifying strengths and coping strategies of Black Appalachians, clinicians, policymakers, and the general population can better tailor their outreach efforts to this community,” Dike and George said. “We are passionate about increasing accessibility to mental health resources that are both feasible and culturally sensitive, so ideally our research could contribute to conversations about how to best support this community.”

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