Report focusing on Black Alaskans’ health describes challenges that create disparities

Alaska Beacon
Alaska Beacon
Panelists at a town hall meeting at the University of Alaska Anchorage on June 30, 2022, discuss findings from a first-ever report specific to Black Alaskans’ health status. The report was released by the Alaska Black Caucus. From left to right: report co-author Amana Mbisi, an assistant professor of social work at UAA; Ty Roberts, a licensed doula in Anchorage; Monique Andrews, a licensed counselor; and LaShanda McGowen, a mental health counselor. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A new report examines the health status of Black Alaskans, summarizing disparities that create chronic problems for a demographic that comprises 3.4% of the state population, as well as some positive trends that safeguard health.

The report, which combines survey results with official state data, was prepared for the Alaska Black Caucus, a nonprofit working to advance the quality of education, economic, and political status of Black people in Alaska.

The Black Alaskans Health Status Report is a groundbreaking document, said Celeste Hodge Growden, president and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus.

“No longer are we lumped into other categories or standing by and looking at other assessments that don’t really include us,” she said at a June 30 town hall at the University of Alaska Anchorage, one in a series of meetings to discuss the report.

The findings should serve as a foundation for future health policies, said Amana Mbisi, an assistant professor of social work at UAA and a co-author of the report.

“What we have is the data. The data by itself doesn’t really do anything. What follows is the most important in terms of what sort of programs then come out of this data,” Mbisi said.

The report, which is the first known assessment of Black Alaskans’ health status of its kind, presented a mixed picture.

On the positive side, Black Alaskans were more likely than Alaskans in general to get routine health checkups, eat fruit, limit alcohol consumption and engage in physical activity and exercise, according to the report. But Black Alaskans also had a high rate of tobacco use – more than half of those surveyed used tobacco products, according to the report.

For morbidity, a particular statistic stood out: Black Alaskans face a higher risk of dying from homicide than other demographic groups in the state. Homicide was the No. 10 cause of death for Black Alaskans, but it was not in the top 10 for other groups.

Suicide was missing from the list of top 10 causes of death for Black Alaskans, a contrast with other groups. For Alaska Natives, suicide ranks sixth in causes of death; for white Alaskans and Asian/Pacific Islanders in Alaska, it ranked eighth and 10th respectively.

At the June 30 town hall, Mbisi said that suicide statistic is one of the positive signs in the report. Even though Black Alaskans report relatively high rates of mental-health stresses, there is a resilience that is worth examining, he said. “What is working there to prevent those suicides?” he said.

On the negative side, Black women in Alaska had much higher rates for cancers of the reproductive system, and Black infants had higher mortality rates that were related to problems in their mothers’ reproductive systems.

In other ways, the statistics for Black Alaskans were similar to those for Black Americans overall – relatively higher rates of stroke and diabetes, for example.

One particular hurdle to proper health care was mentioned repeatedly at the June 30 town hall: the social pressure on Black people to be stoic in the face of physical or emotional stress.

That is especially problematic for women trying to cope with extraordinary stress, said Monique Andrews, a licensed counselor who was a panelist at the event.

“I cannot tell you how many African-American women come into my office and they’re like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed.’ And they name off about 10 things that would shudder anyone. And they’re like, ‘Something’s wrong with me, I don’t know why I can’t handle it,’” Andrews said.

Some of the impetus for the health status report came from concerns that Black Alaskans have been overlooked in state COVID-19 statistics.

According to the most recent data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Black Alaskans have comprised 2.4 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases, 3.2 percent of hospitalizations and 2.6 percent of deaths. But for 25 percent of the diagnosed cases, the race is listed as unknown or missing.

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