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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Centurion Johnson is a co-owner of Journey Embraced.
Cleveland Chatmon has had his fair share of experience with white counselors. When he had therapy with a white female counselor, he felt out of place sharing his issues with her.
“Not having the comfortability with her didn’t allow me to open up as much as I should have,” he said.
Chatmon eventually moved on to a white male counselor, only to encounter the same problem.
“It felt like I was kind of talking to myself and that he didn’t understand me.”
Now receiving both individual and marital counseling at the Black-owned Journey Embraced in Kansas City, Missouri the Bonner Springs resident can pinpoint the root of his previous discomfort.
“When I spoke with white therapists, I had a real strong fear of being judged,” Chatmon said. “After that experience, I kind of shied away from counseling.”
As the world locked down last year, millions lost their jobs and many had to confront the death of close family and friends from COVID-19. The virus hit Black communities particularly hard. According to APM Research Lab, while Black Americans represent 12.4% of the U.S. population, through March, they experienced 14.9% of all COVID-19 deaths where race was known.
On top of that disparity, there were nationwide protests against systemic racism — including in Kansas City — after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, the mental health industry is having its own reckoning with systemic racism. Due to a historical lack of Black voices in the field, many Black people — whose mental health is affected by racial trauma and discrimation — face a number of obstacles in finding good therapy.
In 2019, 9.8% of African American adults received mental health services compared to 19.8% of non-Hispanic white adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And data from the American Psychological Association reveals that in 2019, nonwhite counselors represented just 16% of the psychology workforce, with Black professionals making up only 3% of psychologists.
Although there are no official records on the percentage of counselors in the Kansas City area who are Black, accounts of people struggling to find Black therapists are common.
“What brought me to the field itself was the lack of brown and Black therapists,” said Centurion Johnson, 40, the co-owner of Journey Embraced with his partner Tanise Smith. He opened his private practice in 2020 to address this disparity. “There are not many Black therapists out here.”
Research is subject to racism
Pursuing psychology can be a strain for many Black, Indigenous and other people of color. They often have to overcome income inequality to enter higher education and then deal with the field’s Eurocentrism.
“Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies,” according to “The Weirdest People in the World,” a research paper published by Cambridge University.
This uneven data pool results in highly skewed conclusions on human behavior.
Research on nonwhite demographics, however, is less common and often requires a white comparison group to be published.
“Black trauma is not taught in schools when it comes to mental health,” Johnson recalled of his personal experience as a Black man with higher education.
He said the programs he attended approached mental health with a broad stroke, relaying that all trauma is equal in how it’s experienced.
“But then there’s this other very specific trauma that I experienced and that I see within this demographic that was not talked about in schools,” he said.
Johnson is referring to a race-based traumatic stress prevalent among Black, Indigenous and people of color communities from exposure to racism and discrimination, according to researchers at Columbia University.
This stress can produce negative mental health outcomes, such as anger, depression, physical reactions, avoidance, low-self esteem and hypervigilance. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director declared racism a public health threat.
A conscious decision to combat these negative emotions is what sent the Chatmons, who are both Black, to counseling.
“When you face other systems, you are always fighting against something, and sometimes you don’t have time to nurture your own individual relationships. It’s on the back burner,” T’erra Chatmon said.
“The baggage that we carry from society, we may bring that home and it may impact the way we treat one another,” added Cleveland Chatmon.
Sade Garr-Tyler, 33, is the founder of Rise Up Resiliency Center, a therapy center in Olathe, Kansas. As a Black woman, she wanted to create a “non judgmental space to normalize the counseling experiences for individuals who would not ordinarily go see a therapist.”
She understands how difficult it was for Black people to focus on physical health during the pandemic when “you have to focus on fighting for your life.”
“We didn’t have the time to look at our safety as far as masks and things like that,” Garr-Tyler said. “We were out close to each other, rioting and boycotting and fighting for our rights. That alone is traumatic.”
Why Black clients want Black counselors
Unconscious bias can come into play when a counselor is white, according to people interviewed for this story.
“You’re going to somebody that does not look like you, that does not commune where you live and work, and is either indirectly or directly coming off as very self righteous to you and your family’s very real problems,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’ve experienced and seen within the greater Kansas City area.”
When Tiffany Reynolds, 39, of Olathe, Kansas, added daily walks with her partner into her routine during the pandemic, she found that on the days their schedules didn’t coincide, forcing one to begin without the other, the walks were more of a source of stress than relief.
“I timed and I knew the walk took 42 minutes, so he should be coming down the street,” she said. “Those are things that other people just don’t have to think about.”
On their walks together, Reynolds, who is Black, also noted that her neighbors she usually spoke to would cross the street and avoid her. Situations like these are why she insists on seeing counselors she can relate to.
“It’s exhausting, and to be able to have that set time to speak, to express how I feel and know that they understand some of those things has helped tremendously,” she said.
The sentiment is shared by the Chatmons. Attending sessions with a Black counselor has allowed the couple to be vulnerable while also understanding their relationships to people and systems within a historical context.
“If I had to go to somebody that was not of color, I wouldn’t be as open,” T’erra Chatmon said. “He gets it.”
This is a lesson Reynolds had to learn when moving to Olathe, Kansas, from Baltimore, Maryland. While looking to resume therapy with a Black counselor, she found there were few options available to her through her job’s employee assistance program and ended up with a white therapist.
“I lasted about maybe three or four weeks with her,” said Reynolds. “She could not relate to a lot of the things that I was saying, and some of the suggestions she gave just did not match even some of my experiences.”
Some forms of discrimination are more outright, such as in the experience of Ezrah Otey, 22, of Kansas City, Missouri, who spent a substantial amount of time looking for a counselor to no avail.
“I did try to have another therapist, but when I explained to her my race, she said there’s nothing that they could do for me and she hung (up) the phone on me,” he said.
Now a client at The Transgender Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, Otey’s experience as a Black transperson with white counselors is a prime example of overt racism within the mental health field.
“There’s really a lack of options in the KCMO area for therapists in the Black community, and there’s really not too much that people will help you with,” he said.
Many Black people are also steered away from mental wellness due to a cultural stigma against therapy. Garr-Tyler said seeking therapy could be seen as a sign of weakness.
“And to show weakness for us was life and death at one point,” she said.
Reynolds said she kept her therapy a secret from her family until two years ago due to fear of a negative response from her family.
“When I first told my mom that I was going to therapy, her response was, ‘What’s wrong with you, are you crazy?’” she said.
Many African Americans also attach their mental health to their faith, according to Johnson.
“When we look at problems within our life, we look to God. What that looks like is going to church, talking to our pastors or praying about it, hoping that the problems will go away,” he said.
How white therapists can help
In order for the mental health sphere to become an equitable space, the personal and structural issues making it discriminatory need to be rectified. The demand for psychologists from nonwhite populations is projected to grow by 24% between 2015 and 2030, according to the American Psychological Association’s Center for Workforce Studies.
Psychologists must build their multicultural competence by exploring the science conducted by scholars who are Black, Indigenous and people of color “on issues of race and identity and the impact of discrimination on the mental and physical health of communities of color,” according to the APA.
Cost is also a barrier. A study published by JAMA Psychiatry found that psychiatrists are less likely than other health care professionals to accept insurance due to low reimbursement rates and a complex, time-consuming billing process.
Still, good therapists can overcome racial differences.
“I had to do a lot of work on myself,” says Caroline Gibbs of The Transgender Institute.
Gibbs, a white cisgender woman, has been working as a counselor with the transgender community for over 20 years. She said that systemic inequality makes it so anyone is at risk for harboring internalized transphobia or racism. Recognizing this is the first step in fixing it, according to the counselor.
“It comes right down to recognizing your faults and what you’re misunderstanding and that it’ll be a really ongoing journey,” she says. “If I am not together my patients don’t have a chance. If I don’t care and have deep respect for the patients in my office no matter how they show up I will never be effective.”
Dani Mcrae, 65, of Kansas City, Missouri has been receiving therapy at The Transgender Institute for two years. Although her therapist is neither Black nor transgender, Mcrae attests that her time with Gibbs has been foundational in her journey of discovering her true self.
The main reason for this is her counselor’s insistence on acknowledging her unique struggles and seeing her for herself.
“That’s one thing that she does not do. No preconceptions or anything,” Mcrae said. “She gives me the opportunity to conduct myself as a woman of color.”
As a black trans woman, navigating life has not been an easy feat for Mcrae, but access to therapy has made the process a lot easier. “Therapy has given me the opportunity to really sit back and reevaluate my life,” she said. “I’m almost confident enough to become the person that I’ve always wanted to be.”