‘A difficult time for us all’: Panel discusses mental health during COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice movement


Zoom Screenshot

Pitt and Student Government Board held the roundtable event “COVID-19, Intersectionality and Mental Health” on Tuesday.

By Alex Nieves, For The Pitt News

Camille Interligi, lead clinician for multicultural outreach from the University Counseling Center, said at a Monday roundtable that the concept of mental health itself — especially in regards to mental illness — is a racist and patriarchal construct.

“In general, those definitions of what is mental health are passed down through systems that are inherently white, inherently ableist, inherently patriarchal,” Interligi said. “What is considered mentally healthy is from a very specific and limited lens.”

The Student Government Board and the Office of Dean of Students held the event called “COVID-19, Intersectionality and Mental Health” on Monday evening. The event — which is part of Mental Health Awareness month focused on how mental health is affected by race, inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic. It featured a panel of students, faculty and staff from across the University.

Interligi said while mental health has a variety of aspects and definitions, the idea of mental illness is negative and stigmatizing for marginalized communities. 

“For people that are not white and are not cis men, the world is not an inherently safe place and is not an inherently functioning place,” Interligi said. “When you’re facing racism everyday and you’re facing sexism everyday and especially if you’re experiencing multiple layers of oppression, it just doesn’t make sense to me how someone could be expected to function the same way as someone not experiencing those things.”

Valire Copeland, a professor from the School of Social Work, added that mental health and mental illness are two different things and should be separated from one another.

“From one perspective, we do need to separate mental health from mental illness, because mental illness is a diagnosis,” she said. “Mental health means the health of one’s mind, the health of one’s psychological being.”

Copeland added that the pandemic has affected certain groups more than others, such as low-income individuals unable to afford health care. Copeland said this problem will be magnified if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. 

”I think if we lose the Affordable Care Act, we’re going to see even worse disparities in health,” Copeland said. “Breaking some of those barriers down in our health care system could improve things with regards to health disparities, but if we lose the Affordable Care Act, it means that we’ve lost again, and the work that we’re trying to do, we will only be able to get so far.”

After discussing the definition of mental health, the panelists addressed questions of intersectionality and how it related to their personal mental health. Copeland said intersectionality impacts her as a Black woman. 

“My definition of intersectionality is the varying ways, again, that people present, and the fact that they can be disadvantaged by any combination of their salient identities,” Copeland said. “For example, I present as a Black woman. I identify as a Black woman, so my experience is judged in that regard.”

Paula Davis, the associate vice chancellor for the Office for Health Sciences and Diversity, also said intersectionality can impact people from two marginalized communities. 

“It’s one thing to be a woman and to be depressed, but to add on being an African American woman and being depressed means that you may be dealing with some things based on those two identities that another person may not be dealing with,” Davis said. 

Clyde Wilson Pickett, the vice chancellor for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, also touched on how the pandemic has impacted him and made him reflect on his relationships. Pickett said it is important to recognize the strangeness of today’s political and social climate.  

“It’s made me think about how I share my own vulnerability, how I support others through this experience, and being willing to acknowledge that this is abnormal and while we know we’ll be in this for a long time, how I can provide support to others,” Pickett said. “It is a difficult time for us all.”

Pickett also said it’s a difficult time for most people’s mental health because their support systems have diminished, mainly due to the pandemic. 

“I think it’s been difficult because those personal interactions that you had the ability to facilitate, if you were so inclined to do so, have been fundamentally shifted,” Pickett said. “To go out and engage with folks on a day-to-day basis — those aren’t there.”

Mahima Sindhu, a junior communications and statistics double major and vice chair of the SGB’s Wellness Committee, said the pandemic has thrown off a balance in her life she once had. 

“More than that, we have this systemic expectation that we always have to be productive, but now that all of our work and life have sort of meshed together,” Sindhu said. “It’s hard to find that sort of medium, or even balance of, ‘Should I work today?’ versus ‘Should I spend time with my kids?’” 

Sindhu added that she struggles to find a new balance in her life without feeling a sense of guilt if she isn’t productive enough. 

“I know that for me personally, I have days where I don’t work at all but then there are some days where I work 16 hours straight,” Sindhu said. “I have that sense of guilt at the end of the day where I’m like ‘Wow I live with my parents and I haven’t seen their faces, I haven’t cooked a meal, I haven’t done anything,’ but at the same time, when I do spend time with my family, sometimes I feel like ‘Oh, well, I didn’t do anything today, I should’ve just worked on my essay.’”

Davis said it’s important for those struggling with mental health issues to reach out to others and seek mental health resources both on and off campus. 

“Everyone needs to talk to someone, sometime,” she said. “Whether things are difficult, things are okay — utilize the support resources that are available to you. All these wonderful professionals are here for your benefit.”