Finding a Black therapist is hard. According to data from the American Psychological Association, as of 2015 86% of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were white.
If you're questioning the relevance of race in a discussion about mental health issues—you're likely white. Even with the best of therapists, a white therapist can't understand the true experience of a Black person living in the U.S., which means a lot of valuable time can be spent explaining and trying to get them to believe that experience. "My therapist has really been trying to get me to 'get angrier.' And once I told her I have to be extra careful with that as a Black woman," Amanda*, a 30-year-old Black woman living in New York City, said.
And in the worst of cases people walk out with a misdiagnosis because therapists misread emotional cues and think "Black people are angry" when they're not. That is part of systemic racism. That said, Black patients also have blatant racism thrown their way. "My therapist once said to me, 'She must have Black blood in her because her hair didn’t grow.' Because apparently Black hair doesn’t grow?! I was mortified," said Tiffany*, 32-year-old Black woman living in L.A.
There's never been a more important time to have Black mental health workers available. In addition to the discrimination Black people have always faced, the internet and social media have created a unique opportunity for nonstop racism and the widespread sharing of images and videos of brutal violence against Black people.
The Structural Struggles Of Becoming a Black Mental Health Worker
So, why aren't there more Black mental health workers? "Structural racism, and the fact that people of color, and particularly Black people who have tried to enter the field of therapy and mental health, face a lot of barriers," says Dr. Ruth Shim, psychiatrist at U.C. Davis. "As a psychiatrist, I know it's very difficult to get into medical school in the first place, and the number of Black physicians are very low. That has to do with how we admit people to medical school, and how we treat them when they get there."
Meet the Expert
Dr. Ruth Shim., M.D., M.P.H is a psychiatrist and the Director of Cultural Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
Shim adds that a lot of people talk about the lack of Black mental health workers in the context of stigma, in that there's an idea that stigma is what stops Black people from pursuing a career in mental health. "I don't think the stigma around mental health is worse in the Black community, I think that narrative has helped explain away other structural reasons around why Black people don't pursue careers in mental health, which is that they're more likely to be discriminated against."
The most important next step is to create an environment that makes it possible for more Black people to become mental health workers. "We need to spend a lot of time thinking about therapy programs across the country, and we need to be intentional about trying to recruit and bring in Black therapists," says Shim.
And in the meantime, white therapists need to make an effort to educate themselves instead of leaving it up to Black people to do the work. "Therapists must make an effort to be educated regarding cultural diversity and how to avoid microaggressions," says Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings. "Ongoing awareness and sensitivity through cultural education is the primary tool that can help counselors, or anyone in the helping profession, become aware of and reduce microaggressions."
Here's to structural change, and Black people finally getting the mental health support they need.
*Names have been changed