In a normal year, psychologist Nicole Wright sees about 200 patients in her practice at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. Since the pandemic began, her patient load has multiplied to about 1,000.
“It has been crazy,” said Wright, who also directs the community health center’s divisions that provide substance abuse and mental health treatment services. “The pandemic really emphasized a lot of existing issues in the Native Hawaiian community, especially in the Leeward Coast.”
Hawaii has for years struggled with a statewide shortage of mental health professionals, part of a broader shortage of physicians and other medical staff. That gap has been compounded by the pandemic, which has exacerbated mental health problems both nationally and locally. The mental and emotional toll of the pandemic is still unfolding, but health professionals and service professionals who work with the Native Hawaiian community say the recent delta surge’s disproportionate impact on the community has exacerbated existing mental health concerns.
Stacelynn Eli, a Native Hawaiian legislator representing communities in West Oahu that were hit hardest by the latest virus surge, said the pandemic wrought shock, fear, and confusion in her community. Now what’s left is grief.
“It’s just another historical traumatic moment here in our history as Native Hawaiians here in Hawaii,” she said. “We’ve lost so much in just such a short amount of time.”
It wasn’t always that way. For the first year of the pandemic, Hawaii residents who were at least part Native Hawaiian didn’t have disproportionately high rates of Covid-19. The communities facing the worst Covid disparities in Hawaii were other Pacific Islanders and Filipinos. But after vaccinations became available, Native Hawaiians were less likely to get the shot than other communities, according to state data, making them especially vulnerable to the highly contagious virus strain.
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