How #BlackTherapistsMatter became a rallying cry for Black mental health

[Photo: SDI Productions/Getty Images]

As the pandemic and social unrest have put a strain on Black Americans’ mental health, Black therapists have united around a hashtag to provide help.

By Ruth Reader, Reprinted from Fast Company 

The hashtag appeared last summer, shortly after George Floyd’s murder and right in the middle of waves of protests and violent confrontations with police: #BlackTherapistsMatter. Therapists and therapists-to-be started using it both to remind people to take care of their mental health, and as a beacon. #BlackTherapistsMatter was a signal in the noise, a way of indicating where Black Americans could find therapists who look like them.

Shevon Jones was still in training for her mental health license when she posted that hashtag for the first time. In her Instagram posts, she’s wearing a T-shirt that declares “Black Therapists Matter” in boldface type. She posted it to let people know she was part of the answer to that feeling of exhaustion, anxiety, and depression that many Black Americans were feeling—and as a rallying cry.

“Representation matters! Being able to show up and your therapist looks like you and understands you matters,” Jones wrote in the caption of her post. “We need more Black therapists to show up and fight this fight.”

#BlackTherapistsMatter first emerged on Twitter in 2016, after a police officer shot a behavioral therapist named Charles Kinsey. At Kinsey’s facility, an autistic patient had walked out and was sitting in the middle of a traffic intersection playing with a toy truck. When police arrived, Kinsey was sitting next to his patient, talking to him. When he saw police, he laid down in the street with his arms up and yelled to the officers that the man he was with was not a threat. A police officer shot at Kinsey and struck him in the leg, claiming he thought the toy truck was a gun.

The incident incited a wave of concern over police brutality. But it also put Black therapists at the forefront. Here was a Black therapist—one of few—under threat for doing their job.

After 2017, the hashtag became rare, but during the pandemic, #BlackTherapistsMatter was on the rise again. COVID-19 was disproportionately killing Black Americans, who were also facing higher rates of unemployment. For those who were working, they were disproportionately doing frontline jobs where they were at risk of COVID-19 infection. At the same time, the Black community was battling a separate threat on their lives: police. People came out of their homes to protest George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. The unrest was grueling. Many were feeling the trauma of witnessing violence against Black Americans play out on television, in Twitter streams, and on the streets, over and over again. The deluge of trauma sent many looking for help.

Some turned to Instagram, which has become an easy resource for anyone looking for self-care tips. The platform’s bevy of content around meditation, breathing, and simple steps for beating back anxiety have provided a fertile ground for#BlackTherapistsMatter, which is now attached to about 10,000 posts. Across platforms, the hashtag often heralds the arrival of a new Black professional to the field. Therapists who have just completed licensing exams tag their posts #BlackTherapistsMatter to let people know they’re here and are open for business. Other popular tags in this vein are #BlackTherapists, #TherapyforBlackGirls, and #MinorityMentalHealth.

Part of the reason people feel compelled to say #BlackTherapistsMatter is because there are so few of them. Between 2011 and 2014, Black psychologists comprised 2.5% of all therapists, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those numbers are now on the rise. Last year, that figure was 8%, with the majority of growth occurring between 2018 and 2020. There are now 11,800 Black psychologists, more than double what there were in 2011.

Since not all psychologists see clients for individual therapy—some exclusively work on mental health research—statistics on social workers often act as a better barometer of who’s in the mental health field. Unfortunately, the BLS changed how it labeled mental health jobs in 2020 and so it’s hard to decipher how the number of Black social workers has changed over the years. The most recent data shows there are 25,700 Black social workers, comprising 4% of the overall field. The BLS  reports an additional 9,400 Black Americans work as mental health counselors.

“A lot of people of color are looking for Black therapists and there are not a whole lot of Black therapists,” says Jones.

Part of the reason there are so few Black therapists is because of structural barriers to entering the field. Statistics from 2009 show that of 25 counselor programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, only five were accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, a requirement in many states. When school faculty were asked about why they didn’t have accreditation, they said they didn’t have enough resources to afford it, according to a 2015 study.

There are still other roadblocks. To get licensed, budding therapists have to complete hundreds of hours’ worth of supervision and clinical experience, frequently unpaid. Students may also have to pay licensed clinicians to supervise them.

Despite these hurdles, Jones became a licensed social worker in January. Almost immediately she launched a virtual private practice out of her home in Atlanta and became active on social media, promoting her practice. “I started seeing clients in January and I’m pretty full at this point,” she says. “The same is true for a lot of my colleagues who are therapists—and so we’ve had to get creative.”

To help provide more resources, Jones hosts online group mental wellness sessions and posts a variety of tips to help people manage their feelings. She also regularly posts content and uses hashtags to connect with other Black therapists, to whom she can then refer others.

Others are also trying to fill the void with resources. In April 2020, actress Taraji P. Henson announced that her organization, the Boris L. Henson Foundation, was raising money to fund therapy sessions for under-resourced communities affected by COVID-19.

Others, too, have put out their own efforts to help connect Black Americans with therapists. Ethel’s Club, a New York-based social and collaborative work space for people of color, pivoted to hosting online healing and grieving sessions during the pandemic. A new therapy app called Ayana debuted, promising to connect people of color with culturally appropriate clinicians.

“The stigma of mental health is starting to shift in the Black community,” Jones says. “I think that more people are being okay with stepping out of themselves and saying that I’m not okay and I need help.”

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