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The Reality Of Racism In The Mental Health Industry — Insights From A Black Psychologist

Photo: prostock studio / shutterstock.com 
concerned Black woman shrugs, talking to a Black woman therapist

I decided to write this article in response to an ongoing issue that either goes unnoticed by individuals who are not people of color (POC) or are reluctant to address this topic, as it is often associated with discomfort.

As clinicians, we are expected to provide therapy, motivate, encourage, and advocate on behalf of individuals and families struggling with mental illness, trauma, and the challenges of life.

Many of the individuals and families we treat need both encouragement and hope.

However, it can be difficult to inspire others when we are losing or have lost hope due to racism within our industry.

Many of us will never advance beyond a certain point in our career or receive a comparable salary to individuals that are not POC, specifically African Americans.

The actions that are used by companies to prevent and limit opportunities for the professional growth of African Americans and other POC are usually subtle.

In fact, they can be so subtle that if you have not experienced them before they can be difficult to detect.

If you have experienced it before you are more likely to ask yourself, "Am I seeing and feeling what I think I am seeing and feeling?"

Unfortunately, this is a form of gaslighting.

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How workplace inequity affects African American mental health clinicians

According to research based on an analysis of the member accounts maintained by the jobs website Zippia, African American mental health clinicians earn an average of $46,982 annually, the lowest average salary of any ethnicity tracked by the company. In contrast, Asian mental health clinicians are the highest-earning demographic group with an average annual salary of $53,691.

Black therapists are expected to play nice, be team players, and keep their mouths shut for the sake of not being perceived as combative. We may hold higher degrees than our supervisors, have more experience, and will train the individuals that will eventually make more money and climb the social ladder ahead of us (if we are even allowed to climb).

There needs to be more awareness about this issue.

Work-based gaslighting can look like a position that has been filled that you weren’t aware was available but individuals that look differently know the position is open. Applying for a position and not receiving an acknowledgment of application, never receiving an interview, or receiving an interview that repeatedly gets rescheduled due to time conflicts (on the part of the interviewer) that is ultimately canceled and an announcement of hire for the position applied for is sent out to “all staff” in an email.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) encompass the symbiotic relationship, philosophy, and culture of acknowledging, embracing, supporting, and accepting those of all racial, sexual, gender, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, among other differentiators. The term DEI is trending among many organizations and the media and is touted by almost anyone that is forward-facing with the public.

Yet, in my experience, it is rarely implemented.

Unfortunately, people that are not in the field of social, behavioral, and mental health may not be aware there are gatekeepers to success and advancement. We try to build our clients while being diminished simultaneously.

How racial bias shows up in the mental health industry 

Ironically, mental health professionals are encouraged “to meet the client where they are at," meaning providing individualized care for their unique experiences as it relates to diagnosis, race, culture, socioeconomic status, etc. To put it plainly, we are expected to understand and take into account the nuances of each individual's behavior and lived experiences.

What others fail to see or refuse to see we have no choice but to see and experience. How many other people can say they were hired based upon their phone interview, in-person interview, resume, and experience — only to show up for their first day of work and everyone else asks them why are there?

I know what you are thinking: if they interviewed you shouldn't they know you are Black? The short answer is yes.

I was interviewed along with a woman that shared the same first name and a similar last name. My work experience was more expansive than hers (I was told via phone how my selection for the position was made), my resume, and my degrees.

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I should have taken the hint that something was amiss when the Black delivery man made his drop off of packages to the office on my first day.

He appeared to be shocked I was recently hired by this organization, even responding in a whisper "I didn't realize they hired people like you, like me, for your type of position." 

I sat with my mouth open for an inordinate amount of time when he finished delivering the packages and said his final goodbye "Be safe, sister."

Grappling with what I was told by the delivery guy I began to think back on all the stares I received from the other staff members when I entered the office earlier that morning. I was then presented with a large back computer, the kind you see in the movie "16 Candles" and instructed to create an excel spreadsheet.

I couldn't figure out how to use this computer, hit shut off and on, and other staff "modern" computers. After trying to create the spreadsheet for several hours that would include current clients I was asked to come into my boss's office.

Once I entered the office, I noticed there were two resumes on his desk. He asked me to verify my name again and employment background, seemingly shocked he kept saying "So this is you, this is your resume?" Responding yes, I asked him if there were any more questions and proceeded to walk back to my desk.

Later that day I was informed bifocal glasses and an umbrella were missing. I was terminated the following day because I was "unable to use the company-issued computer to their satisfaction." On my way out I saw what was supposed to be my desk is cleared and a new computer was being placed on it, my namesake was entering as I was leaving.

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Bias in the mental health industry is nothing new 

This and many other experiences changed the way I perceive equality, specifically in the workplace.

I don't know many people that have been "hired" for a new company targeting POC in need of mental health services just to be let go once they have secured the contract or the grant.

Using Black therapists to gain trust from a population that resembles them is not a "new thing", it's a historical thing that fails to be addressed.

One of my most disappointing memories came when I was "hired" by a company (I use quotations because I was told I could not be officially hired until the company was awarded the contract, I would remain a contract worker until signing) to market mental health services to individuals and families living in Raleigh, NC.

A week later I started hearing whispering from other staff that they had received offer letters for employment with the company, I had not received an offer letter. I went to the CEO and asked about the status of the contract. Sensing I was aware the company had been awarded the contract I was initially asked “I need another week to send out offer letters I am really busy right now, is that ok?"

When the week passed and I still had not heard anything or received an offer letter I was told I would not be securing the position permanently, "I was too clinical." When I reminded the CEO that I was filling the role as a Director of Clinical Services and did not understand her statement, she had no response.

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A few weeks later the position was filled by someone with a lesser degree and closely resembled the CEO and other recently hired staff.

Many African American therapists have voiced feelings of powerlessness as it pertains to salary and career mobility. Often, we are encouraged to create groups on Slack.

Slack is a messaging app for businesses that connects people. Slack offers many IRC-style features, including persistent chat rooms (channels) organized by topic, private groups, and direct messaging.

However, the channel designated for African Americans is usually underutilized or not utilized at all because many people do not trust that the information being communicated over the channel is private or is being monitored by “the higher-ups.” African American therapists will typically text each other using their personal cell phones to voice both frustrations and concerns.

Contrary to some peoples' assumptions, Black people are people of courage, pride, passion, and aspiration, we strive to build upon and create better days than the day before. It is not a "joy" simply to have a job — but a joy to be treated and afforded the same opportunities as others regardless of race, culture, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who focuses on relationships, dating, and personality issues, as well as a Certified Relationship Specialist with Diplomate Status and an expert with the American Psychotherapy Association.

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