This is a guest blog post written by Olivya Wilson, MSW, LCSW, the Parent Engagement Coordinator for Greater Richmond SCAN. This is part one on the impact of having clinicians of color.
We want to raise awareness about the importance of having mental health professionals of color and why children in particular need clinicians who present and reflect their same racial and ethnic experiences.
I want to do this by first introducing you to Tamika. Tamika is a Black/African American mother of four. She has three boys and one girl. Her oldest son was diagnosed with Autism as a child, something she knew nothing about as a new mom several years ago. This diagnosis led her on a winding path of trying to learn all she could about the diagnosis and how to find the right kind of resources and supports for her son. She fought many battles trying to advocate for her son’s needs. He was completely non-verbal at the onset of his diagnosis and struggled with aggressive behaviors, among other challenges. Additionally, he was in a school system with personnel that didn’t know how to appropriately respond to his needs, especially with him being a tall Black adolescent and later, a teenage boy with Autism.
When her son began receiving intensive in-home counseling services, she requested a Black male counselor, but for the first three to four years, her son was assigned mostly White female counselors. He received a Black female counselor once, but shortly after was switched back to a White female counselor. Tamika persisted with this request until her son was finally assigned a Black male counselor, who she said has made all the difference in her son’s progress.
If you asked Tamika, she would tell you that the reason it took so long to get a Black counselor for her son is because there aren’t enough Black mental health providers to meet the ever-growing need and demand. Black male mental health providers are even more scarce. Tamika shared her story with me and continues to share it every opportunity she gets about why it was so important for her to find a Black male counselor for her son. She went to these lengths because she knew it was important for her Black son to be connected with someone who looked like him and who could identify with him and relate to him in a real way. She wanted someone for him who shared similar, or even the same, ethnic and cultural values.
Why Children of Color Need Clinicians of Color
I’m always reminded of Tamika’s story whenever I engage in conversation about the need for more Black and Brown mental health professionals. Her story is just one of many that helps convey why having clinicians of color is so important. When we consider the needs of children of color, we must consider their unique backgrounds and experiences as well. We have to take into account what it means for them to have mental health professionals that represent and reflect their identities, as well as have spaces to share and process their experiences without the added stress of having to explain themselves or feeling fearful of being misunderstood, judged, invalidated, or further marginalized by their therapists.
In season 4 of the award-winning drama series This Is Us, Randall Pearson, played by Sterling K. Brown, finally acquiesces to seeking therapy for his past traumas and history of mental health challenges. He begins working with a White female therapist, who Randall appears to develop a positive rapport with and who seems to help with his first breakthrough. However, with COVID-19, the resurgence of violence against Black people, increased racial and political tensions happening, he comes to realize he needs to find a therapist that could help him show up more authentically in a therapeutic space and he finds that with a Black male therapist.
When I think about the mental health of children of color, I think about how the history of racism and systems of oppression are in many ways connected to their presenting circumstances. Just like we advocate for more representation of Black and Brown people in other professional arenas such as the medical field, politics, mass media and sports that have been dominated and run by White people and white supremacist systems for so long, the advocacy is desperately needed in the mental health field as well.
According to the American Psychological Association’s Center for Workforce Studies, 86% of psychologists are white, and other mental health professions are similarly homogeneous. Already at a disadvantage owing to structural disparities, people from underrepresented communities are often unable to find providers who look like them or share their cultural experiences. (Source: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/09/increasing-providers-color)
Raising awareness about the racial-ethnic disparities in the mental health field doesn’t dismiss or deny the ability of some White mental health professionals to work with Black and Brown children and their families. However, it does remind us how neglectful the mental health field has been to Black and Brown individuals and communities. For me, not acknowledging the importance of having and needing more mental health clinicians of color keeps us at risk, whether consciously or unconsciously, of perpetuating the “White Savior” complex.
“From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people… The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” according to a piece in The Atlantictitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex”. (Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/)
I’ve come to recognize more than ever that Black, Indigenous, Latino and Asian people, especially our children, need to see more people like themselves participating in the healing process. Attending cultural competency or cultural sensitivity trainings are helpful and necessary, but it’s not enough. We must start to recognize how important the lived experiences of Brown and Black mental health professionals are to the practice. In these Trauma Basics or Intro to Trauma Informed Care trainings, we learn that trauma doesn’t discriminate, it has no respect of person, it crosses color lines, class, socioeconomic lines, etc. This is true, trauma can and has impacted all kinds of peoples and communities. I’ve also learned in my Urban Trauma training courses that there is a history of trauma, cultural biases, mistrust, and stigmas that are unique to Black and Brown people that White clinicians will never truly be able to understand, with regards to the importance and relevance of these experiences to their identities.
Egette Indelele is the founder and CEO of Safe Haven Space and a recent graduate of George Mason University. Egette and her family were refugees from Tanzania some years ago. Her experience of being a refugee and realizing the impacts of that experience on her and her family’s mental health, along with understanding the cultural stigmas around mental health led her to founding Safe Haven Space. They offer mental health and well-being programs to refugee and immigrant students and their families, helping them to succeed in American life and culture through programs in schools and community organizations. This delivery of services most likely wouldn’t have the same impact if someone without the experiences of being a refugee or immigrant was leading this work.
These are just a few examples and reasons of why we encourage more Black and Brown providers to work in mental health and why children in particular need clinicians who represent and reflect that same racial and ethnic or cultural experiences.
In part two of Olivya’s guest blog post, she’ll be discussing the recruitment of clinicians of color, including barriers, retainment, and how you can help.Read More Blog Posts