APHA 2021 attendees in Denver can choose between three colors for their badge lanyard: green, red or yellow. The color they display signals their comfort level with close contact given the continuing health risk of COVID-19.

The color-coding system was lifted from the mental health field, which created it to help people nonverbally communicate whether they’re open to a hug, a distanced conversation or want a moment alone, said Adriane Griffen, senior director of public health and leadership at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

Griffen, a panelist at a Monday Annual Meeting session on “Mental Health and COVID-19: Public Health Impact in Diverse Communities,” said the color system is an example of how a practice in mental health and wellness can be appropriated for another use, in this case as a COVID-19 safety measure.

woman with pained expressionThe system also suggests how mental health intersects with the disease to impact diverse communities. Four in 10 adults in the U.S. report they have experienced regular bouts of anxiety, depressive disorder or both during the pandemic, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released this year.

People of color are disproportionately affected. Nearly half of Black and Hispanic adults have experienced mental health challenges related to COVID-19, the KFF survey found. Depression and anxiety among Asian Americans increased sevenfold in 2020, compared to the year prior, according to a study published in March.

Mental health challenges in Asian communities have partly been driven up by the rise of hate crimes toward Asian Americans, said panelist Anne Saw, an associate professor of psychology at DePaul University.

Panelist Derek Griffith, co-director of the Racial Justice Institute at Georgetown University — and a co-editor of the APHA Press Book "Racism: Science & Tools for the Public Health Professional" — pointed out that, while researchers consider age, pre-existing conditions and essential worker status as risk factors for COVID-19, researchers inconsistently consider the factors of race, ZIP code, gender and sexual orientation.

Minority populations are far more heterogenous than statistical analyses are capturing when measuring COVID-19’s human impact, Griffith said told session attendees.

“If you are going to address a particular group, you need to focus on them and not homogenize and come up with a one-size strategy, because those generally don’t work,” he said.

Photo by Twinsterphoto, courtesy iStockphoto