In our current times, the debate of whether COVID-19 vaccines are safe or not has come up for a lot of people. Whether or not we have access to the vaccines continues to be an on going discussion. As a minority in the United States, I have had to weigh my options. Not only in terms of the vaccines effectiveness but also in terms of level of trust in the healthcare system. In my family, self-care as a Black man was not a well-known idea. The concept did not make it to my awareness until many years into adulthood, and to be honest, the concept of healthcare had not been in my awareness until March of 2020. During that time, the pandemic was just beginning to reach the US in terms of media coverage. I quickly shrugged it off, much like I shrugged off past injuries and illnesses. Although, those shrugs were not in leu of fear. In fact, my past injuries and illnesses had landed me in the hospital on multiple occasions, so I was well aware of the risk. So why now? Why was I minimizing the importance of healthcare during a pandemic? The answers to these questions were found through knowing who I am and where I came from.
The messages I heard growing up about healthcare were that of, “we can’t afford it”, “they won’t see us here”, and “they don’t know what they’re talking about”. These messages have historical roots in my culture, and it is important to know where they come from in order to change the trajectory in life moving forward. As a child, I remember hearing about the Tuskegee experiments in Alabama. Where, for about 40 years, medical professionals engaged in unethical testing of Black sharecroppers, under the guise of free medical treatment. However, the men were never given treatment. Instead, they were given placebos while researchers documented the long-term effects of syphilis on Black men. The medical mistrust created by the Tuskegee study has had a lasting impact on Black America for many years. Additionally, growing up in a military family also brought a sense of medical mistrust. I recall my mother describing the first days of basic training and how she was lined up and injected with things she still does not understand. The sense of freedom over one’s body was taken from her during this time and it likely impacted her trust in future medical care. There is also the idea of “you can what you pay for”. This message was instilled in me through many office visits where you were given a band-aid and sent on your way. The significance of insurance has always impacted the lives of those with limited funds. Having to chose between medical care and a life of debt is an ongoing decision process that many people experience.
With a brief understanding of my past, I began to ask myself: is healthcare, self-care? I know the ultimate goal of many minority families is to break cycles of trauma and create generational wealth. Wealth in my family is defined as connection, education, and success. My ancestors have successfully passed forward the message of knowledge, and with that knowledge, I have been able to recognize the importance of information and misinformation. As it pertains to COVID-19, I see it as my duty, to family and culture, to do research in order to navigate the world of information and misinformation. Through this process I reached a point where I began to see the value in healthcare and how it relates to my own self-care. If we want to break the cycles of mistrust connected to historical oppression, we must be healthy in body and mind. Leading by example, we must begin having these types of conversation with our relatives to gain a greater perspective on their experiences and fears about the healthcare system. Through these conversations with my relatives, I realized I had not attended a medical examination in ten years.
My first step in building trust in the healthcare system was to educate myself further about specific tests and the process of attending an appointment. The second step was to schedule a visit. Still, not be financially secure, this first appointment cost me about a week’s worth of meals once all the tests were complete. It was a difficult decision to make, and previously I would have shrugged it off and accepted that my food was more important. However, after my first visit, the feeling of being in control and aware of my health status provided me with an overwhelming sense of relief that fed my body and mind for the next 6 months. It is an experience I hope will encourage others to take back control of their healthcare and see it as self-care.
Preston Rice, MA
Psychotherapist at CORE-Center of Relational Empowerment, P.C.