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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Normalizing The Conversations Of Mental-Health Struggles

By Katya Tulak and Keely Noel, The Seattle Medium

According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1.1 million of the Black and African American population aged 18 and older in the U.S. reported having a serious mental illness in 2020. 42.0 % of those received no treatment. 

But three people who work in mental health and a young person who struck out on her own to find help offer some suggestions on how and why to find someone to talk to.

“There is a sense of power and strength that is inherent in the Black community that says ‘I am strong enough, tough enough, I can handle this,’” said Roy Fisher, a Tukwila licensed marriage and family therapist. “‘We come from this group of resilient people therefore I am able to manage this.’”

Oftentimes if an individual does seek outside help, it is seen as a sign of weakness or the inability to take care of oneself.

Allison Briscoe-Smith, a Seattle-based child clinical psychologist, said the stereotype of the strong Black woman persists and that “Connotes a sense of needing to be superhuman and not needing help or not asking for help.” She is the director of diversity equity and inclusion at the Wright Institute, a graduate program in Berkeley, California, for clinical psychology.

Selam Gurmu, a longtime Seattle resident and University of Washington student, said that when she started thinking about seeking therapy in February 2021 she was scared her family and professionals would dismiss her as dramatic. Because she appeared so confident her entire life she was afraid people would judge her during the times she wasn’t so confident.

Growing up Ethiopian, Gurmu said the topic of mental health was very stigmatized and rarely discussed.

“In high school they would talk about mental health and stuff, but I’ve just never heard that from within my own community. But, to be fair, my own community is just a lot of Ethiopian people who were, like, religious and very traditional and don’t believe in mental health.”

After being paired with a black female therapist Gurmu said her worries dissipated and she felt connected to her right away. She recognizes, though, that she is lucky to have this experience.

“That is not the experience for a lot of people, especially a lot of people of color.”

According to this PDF document from the American Psychiatric Association, “Lack of cultural understanding by health care providers may contribute to underdiagnosis and/or misdiagnosis of mental illness in people from racially/ethnically diverse populations.”

This is why Alfred White, a therapist from Federal Way, says finding someone who can work with you through a culturally competent lens is a good first step in receiving treatment. People of color need to be recognized, he says.

After only a couple of months, Gurmu’s therapist left talk therapy for research and she was on the hunt again. Before leaving, the therapist shared an online resource to search for therapists in the area. She struggled to find anyone who took her insurance and she struggled to find any Black therapists at all.

When talking about mental health, White says searching for someone who can better understand and relate to your experience as a Black individual is important, but it can be difficult to find someone.

Fisher recommends the website Multiculturalcounselors.org. Prospective clients can filter a search by ethnicity, language, religion, and location in Washington state. It is the “Psychology Today for therapists of color,” he said.

“There’s enough of us out there to do this work. Unfortunately, a lot of us are busy and so it’s hard to get in. But that is at least someplace where they might be able to find somebody that looks like them,” Fisher said.

According to Briscoe-Smith, the percentage of Black therapists is well under the national average of therapists. Race matching with a therapist may be a good way to get started, she said, but you may then switch later on based on your needs, not just on the race of your therapist.

She uses the analogy of trying on shoes: “You’ve got to figure out the right shoe for the right event.” You wouldn’t give up on wearing all shoes just because the first one didn’t work out.

“Sometimes a shoe fits really well and gets you to one part of the journey but sometimes you need to change. Changing therapists isn’t a bad idea,” she says.

This graphic shows an analogy for finding the right therapist–ideas developed by Allison Briscoe-Smith.  (Graphic designed by Katya Tulak)

The high price tag of therapy is another barrier for many people.

Gurmu found her initial therapist from the Department of Community and Human Services through the King County website, where they claim to provide, “High-quality behavioral health services to low-income individuals in need.”

Their services are available to people who are Medicaid eligible, meet certain medical requirements or who are not eligible for Medicaid but are low-income.

Briscoe-Smith said organizations such as The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation and The Loveland Foundation are working towards improving mental health resources. Organizations like these provide Black individuals free virtual therapy sessions and financial assistance for therapy.

“There are some good resources out there. I couldn’t say that 10 years ago, but there has been a huge movement to reduce the barriers to mental health access for Black folks in particular that I think are really impactful.”

She also suggests starting slow. For some people, online therapy–which might involve a phone or a telephone conversation with a therapist– might be a good first step. Apps are another place to begin.

Other online resources include: Nami Seattle, which has Seattle-based mental health resources for Black, Indigenours and other people of color; AfricanAmericanTherapists.com, which provides a directory of Black therapists in Seattle; and The Association for Black Psychologists, which, according to its website, has the goal of making a “Positive impact upon the mental health of the national Black community by means of planning, programs, services, training, and advocacy.”

Here is a list of resources for people seeking mental health assistance in Washington. Many of these organizations are working towards improving access to mental health resources or contain referral lists for therapists in the Seattle area. (Graphic designed by Katya Tulak)

Although the stigma surrounding mental health is prevalent, Fisher says younger generations are more open to the idea of engaging in therapy. Briscoe-Smith hopes the tide and the stigma around mental health is shifting.

After searching for a Black therapist with no luck, Gurmu says she took the plunge of seeing a white therapist. Even though she doesn’t feel as connected she’s pretty happy with how it’s going. “I know my options are limited, but I know I need to be in therapy and I can’t not do it,” she said.

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