Sheila Miller was moved to tears when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. On the day Joe Biden was projected to be the president-elect, ousting Donald Trump, Miller was emotional, but in a dissimilar way.
“Two different feelings altogether,” the Washington, D.C., native said. “With President Obama, it was all about pride — the first Black president. An honorable man. With this election, it was a stress release. We’ve been through so much, the last four years. The idea of more of the same was something that most of the country could not bear — especially Black people.”
Miller’s emotions were reflective of many voters across America, but specifically the Black voters who described Trump’s behavior as “consistent vitriol” and categorized his seeming embrace of white supremacists as “a burden,” “exhausting,” “scary” and “crazy.”
And experiencing it was also unhealthy.
Dr. Jessica Isom, a psychiatrist at the Codman Square Health Center in Boston, said Trump’s rhetoric on race created physical tension within Black people’s bodies. That stress manifested itself in ways that can be quantified now and intangible ways that could show up in the future.
“For a lot of people, there has been release of a long-held breath. For one, there has been lots of anti-Blackness in how he talks about Black people,” Isom said of Trump. “And two, his policy decisions had an overall detrimental impact on our ability to feel like the highest leader in the land cares about our well-being. The pandemic, Lord knows, you can call that anti-Black and anti-indigenous — the people who are most vulnerable suffered the most because he did not make moves that would take care of them.”
All of this adds up, she said, to unexplained body aches, stomach discomfort, abnormal sleep patterns, over- or under-eating or, grouchiness and frequently a feeling of anxiety.
“Those are ways stress comes out,” Isom said.
Anxiety in the body creates the potential for future health issues, according to Yale University psychiatrist Dr. Terrell Holloway.
Long-term exposure to stress can leave people vulnerable to ailments such as heart disease and diabetes, Holloway said, which tend to plague Black Americans at high rates.
“It all co-relates with the health disparities that are unique to Black people because of structural racism,” she said. “When you have a president who triggers these stressors, particularly over an extended period of time, issues can occur.”
Sonja Sackor knows this all too well. She is a realtor who lives near Dallas and close to Rockwall County. Trump received 68 percent of the votes in that county in the general election. She said she has had to endure a harsh climate since Trump took office in 2016, fueled by large local rallies. A rally was held there a day after the election was called, demanding an investigation of the election results.
“It has been so exhausting for four years, filled with anger, depression, fatigue and insomnia,” Sackor said. “Self-medicating to just get through the day. . . I am faced with bigotry, racism, bullying, ‘unpeaceful’ protesters publicly protesting with open-carry weapons, yelling profanities and derogatory comments regarding the election. It's very unnerving and intimidating.”
She said a “Biden-Harris” sign she placed in her yard was removed and she has consistently dealt with confrontational Trump supporters, especially this year through the election, racial injustice protests, and Covid-19 pandemic. She said she often dons mental armor “to go to the store because I know something could be said or done. So, there has been joy with the Biden victory, but sadness and some shock that this country is as divided as it is.”
For Miller, the exaltation of Biden’s victory was tempered by a sobering fact: Millions of people still voted for Trump.
“I was excited, happy, relieved and proud, especially as a Black woman and Howard alum, that Kamala Harris will be the vice president,” she said. “But then you realize that 71 million people voted for Trump and realize that while the racial overtones won’t be coming from the White House, he will still be stoking the flames, and a lot of people out there are waiting for him to promote a racist ideology. And that’s scary.”
Mildred "Mit" Joyner, president of the National Association of Social Workers, found that scary, as well, from a health and social perspective.
“The last four years have been a very difficult process,” Joyner said. “We were almost at the peak of bursting. It’s been a lot. The White House hasn’t served us. On top of the rhetoric, African Americans have had to solve the issues by voting in large numbers, by encouraging people to get out and vote. There’s a lot of pressure specifically on the African American women. So, we’re tired, yet jubilant.
“It can’t be healthy that we get through these emotions and now there are two Senate seats in Georgia that we have to get. So we, Black people, have to go right back out there to save democracy. There’s always another hurdle.”
Sackor said she found some relief after Biden was projected as the president-elect.
"I got a peaceful night's rest, which included 12 hours of sleep,” she said.
But Trump, so far, has not accepted the loss, and has been hostile to efforts to transition over to the next administration.
“It’s likely that when Biden and Kamala Harris get into office, they will find a bigger mess than the Obama administration did in 2008,” Joyner said. “We must self-care. We have to maintain our own grace. It’s stressful to constantly educate white people who should know better about racism.
“We need people to hear our pain. We need people to listen. As social workers — and most of them are white — we need to bring people together. That’s why I stay in this job. As long as Black people are looked at as a threat, I feel a need to be here.”
Isom said Trump’s behavior drew attention away from a bevy of societal ills that created stress in Black people all along.
“Trump losing is one less thing on the list of stressors for Black people to worry about, especially for people who have real-life things to deal with,” she said. “He’s been such a distraction. In talking to psychiatrists, they are so obsessed with this election and what it represents — I think too obsessed."
While Trump’s defeat was important, Isom said, racism will continue to exist.
“He was a successful distraction because they forgot that the schools are racist, the jails are racists, the hospitals are racist, the bank is racist,” she said. “Everything is still structurally racist. So, it also gives us a chance to refocus our energy on structural racism.”
She anticipated that Trump’s incendiary comments will come in rapid-fire succession after he leaves office.
“There’s something to be said for preparing people for what’s coming,” Isom said. “He’s not going to go away and what do you do about that psychologically?”