How Are Black Therapists Doing Right Now?

They’re in higher demand than ever — and dealing with many of the same stressors as their patients

Photo: SDI Productions/Getty Images

During a recent therapy session, Boston-based psychiatrist Cecil Webster, Jr., MD, had to answer a seemingly impossible question. His patient, a 9-year-old Black boy, asked him: “Will white people be afraid of me when I grow up?”

“As a therapist and as a Black man, how are you supposed to answer that?” Webster asks. He’s been providing therapy and medication management to adults, adolescents, and children — most of them Black — for eight years. But over the past few weeks, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the resulting protests have led to a noteworthy increase in appointment requests, he says. “It has felt a little more urgent [in terms of requests]. I’ve gotten a lot more calls, and patients that I hadn’t seen in a while have been reaching out more frequently.”

Webster’s experience is not unique, and it hints at a convergence of factors currently stretching Black therapists thin. To start, Black mental health professionals are underrepresented in the workforce. According to the most recent data from the American Psychological Association, only 4% of psychologists in the United States are Black. So now, at a time when Black people may be experiencing greater distress than before, and given that many Black folks in need of mental health services prefer seeing Black practitioners, Black psychologists and psychiatrists can find themselves overwhelmed with demand.

For Kristin Carothers, PhD, a psychologist based in Atlanta, although her practice is normally 60% white patients and 40% minorities, she’s seen an uptick in outreach from both existing and potentially new Black patients. “All of my most recent inquiries have been Black families. Since the pandemic began, the majority of the referrals that I was getting were for Black individuals,” she says.

“I’m in a position where it’s my responsibility to respond when people who are not Black reach out and ask, ‘Can you explain [racism] to me? Can you help me?’”

Initially, many of her patients were reporting pandemic-related concerns such as how to deal with lost jobs or income or the stress of social isolation and having to quarantine with family members. But there was a shift after the death of George Floyd in late May. “It was Black people feeling anger, anxiety, and disbelief,” she recalls.

Webster heard similar concerns from his patients and notes there’s a common feeling of being underappreciated or invisible in the workplace that is now heightened. “There has been a big push from many firms and institutions to have these statements about George Floyd specifically, but many of my [Black patients] were like, ‘Why is it only about George Floyd and not about police brutality and Black life?’” Webster’s clients are also trying to balance their feelings with a desire to make change. “There’s the difficulty wanting to advocate in a general way about what to do about racism, and what’s the responsibility of the organization versus an individual’s responsibility. It also requires a lot of time and energy, which is something a lot of Black professionals don’t have right now,” he explained.

Carothers has also received numerous requests to speak to schools and parent groups about how to address racism. Despite the increased workload, Carouthers views it as a way of relieving the burden on other Black individuals. “I’m in a position where it’s my responsibility to respond when people who are not Black reach out and ask, ‘Can you explain [racism] to me? Can you help me?’ Because I don’t want other Black people who are not in my professional stance to be burdened with having to teach an entire group of people, especially Black people who find themselves being the only person in their place of employment,” she says.

Of course, the increased demand for services also comes at a time when many Black mental health professionals are also facing their own challenges due to current events. “In the past month, I’ve wondered how I, as a Black mental health professional, hold space for people when I always feel weighed down in terms of mental health,” says Gloria Kimbulu, a graduate assistant at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.

“I’m a Black man in America, and these images that you see of life being taken so capriciously away, it’s startling really, to both have to exist in this country as well as navigate others’ existence in this country when it can be so painful.”

Kimbulu facilitates therapy groups for the center, which are mostly white due to her locale, she says. This presents its own unique challenges. She recently facilitated a group discussion to see how patients were feeling about police brutality and the ongoing protests. One white participant responded that they only see once race, the human race. (Experts on discrimination and anti-racist activists note that so-called “color blindness” is harmful because it ignores systemic racism and erases the lived experiences of people of color). “How do I take care of myself when I hear something like that? And how do I check on the one Black patient who is also in the group because they’re also hearing that statement?” she says.

Webster echoes that sentiment. “I’m a Black man in America, and these images that you see of life being taken so capriciously away, it’s startling really, to both have to exist in this country as well as navigate others’ existence in this country when it can be so painful,” he says.

For Kimbulu, setting boundaries has become a key coping mechanism. She recently declined a request by her supervisor to take on additional patients. “I would have liked to take that person on, but I don’t have the emotional capacity when I’m also involved in the community. I think that’s something that is really important for people who are in mental health because some people forget to have those boundaries, and they end up extending themselves more than they should,” she says.

Webster has found support from a peer group, Black Psychiatrists in Boston, an informal group of Black psychiatrists that was started in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. The group meets every couple of months and met recently to discuss the recent protests. “It was really nice to have other Black psychiatrists all be in one place. You don’t have to necessarily explain what the problems are, but we can at least experience this difficulty together, be able to talk it out, and delineate it in our words and ways,” he says.

Carothers resumed therapy herself two months before the pandemic began, which she credits as being essential during this time. “My therapist is Black, and when I felt overwhelmed, she reminded me that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I can’t do everything. It has really helped me to decide what I can do: Can I take additional patients? Do I say yes to certain talks? So having my own mental health care that is consistent has been paramount,” she says.

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