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Hampton Roads Community News

Social Ties & Networks Found To Greatly Affect Mental Health

Close social connections have a significant impact on African Americans’ mental health, influencing their lifespan and resilience in the face of racial discrimination and traumatic events.

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

If you are reading this story in July 2023, during Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (MMHAM), please, pat yourself on the back, throw a party, or whisper a prayer of gratitude.

It means you are still breathing and didn’t die during a routine traffic stop –  or die at a mass shooting in a public space where Blacks were targeted. Or you did not die from heart disease, cancer, stroke, homicide or an unintentional injury – the top five killers of Blacks before age 71, according to the CDC. The median age for Blacks is 71.8 years compared to 77.6 years for Whites. 

But the good news is the Black mortality rate actually declined among African-Americans who maintain close emotional social relationships. Those who are rarely lonely or alone live longer. Multiple reports show biological and non-biological factors influence one’s life span, in other words.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that lack of social connections can be deadly,” said Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead author of a 2010 study that showed strong social relationships increase the likelihood of survival by 50 percent regardless of age, sex or health status, according to a meta-analysis of 148 studies on mortality risk. Her 2010 study was published in PLOS Medicine.

Several local events have already been held to honor MMHAN’s 2023 theme: Culture, Community, and Connection.

For example, during its recent Juneteenth celebration, the Urban League of Hampton Roads and the City of Portsmouth included mental health agencies and therapists of color among its 757 performers, corporate sponsors, and vendors who promoted their services and resources.

Another local mental-wellness event was held at Norfolk State University in June at G.W.C. Brown Memorial Hall. The two-day event, “Moving Beyond Words By Taking Action,” was sponsored by The YWCA of South Hampton Roads and was the second annual Racial Equity and Social Transformation (REST) Conference sponsored by the Center for African-American Public Policy.

It focused on launching and implementing solutions that work toward eliminating racism and social injustice. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols, deputy assistant secretary for public engagement at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


“This conference is for all of us to lean in fully to the systems that have long perpetuated stark and persistent biases and disparities in wealth, mental and financial well-being of women and people of color. R.E.S.T. is our opportunity to learn and grow for the good of humanity,” YWCA Chief Executive Officer Michelle Ellis Young said. “We are leaning into the fullness of our mission unapologetically, not because it’s a political thing to do. It’s because it’s a humanitarian thing to do.”

In other words, a few good friends are as beneficial as diet, exercise, and routine medical care when it comes to increasing the average African-American’s life span, due to the fact that multiple studies not only show Blacks are more likely to experience racial discrimination; but also Blacks are also more likely to experience the deaths of more friends and relatives throughout life. 

In plain terms, a few good friends will help you make sense of the death of a close friend, a relative, a random racist encounter, or a video on TV that shows an unarmed Black being killed by a police officer.

Aiming to explain the impact that the endless George Floyd-video-reruns had on many African-American psyches, Harvard psychologist David R. Williams, who released a historic 2018 study, said, ”The accumulation…was comparable to the rate experienced by diabetics.”

Specifically, Williams, who released an historic 2018 study titled, “Police Killings and Their Spillover Effects on the Mental Health of Black Americans,” said, ”What we found was that every police shooting of an unarmed Black person was linked to worse mental health for the entire Black population in the state where that shooting had occurred for the next three months.”

“It’s a striking finding, and it’s the first time it has been documented in that way,” Williams said. “On the other hand, it’s not totally surprising. There’s a body of evidence emerging that suggests these incidents are having a negative impact not just on [victims’] family members, but there’s a broader community grieving; there’s a broader “threat” to the community; there’s a broader increase in personal vulnerability that’s having mental health consequences.  … We are still in the beginning of understanding of what is happening.”

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