Evolve Clinicians Share What Black History Means to Them
This month is Black History Month in the United States. It comes at an opportune time: just a few weeks ago, Kamala Harris made history when she took the oath of office as America’s first Black Vice President.
This month is an ideal opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans and discuss the intersection between the Black community and mental health. At Evolve, we asked our clinicians to share their thoughts on these issues.
Influential Black Americans in History
Black History Month is “the perfect time to honor and celebrate people and moments in time that have led to deep awareness and change,” says Alexa Boffoli, LMFT, Program Director of Evolve Danville. “This is a month to give space and time to reflect on the disparities of the Black community and focus on future-oriented goals to increase inclusion and equality for all.”
When we think of influential figures in Black history, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Maya Angelou, and others come to mind. Indeed, their seminal contributions are profound and should never be discounted. Many other lesser-known historical figures have brought about real change to American life, too.
“It’s important to recognize the contributions of those from the Black diaspora in every field of life,” argues Larisa Karvon, LCSW, Evolve San Jose Program Director. “We are far more than the boxes that we’ve been placed in by public view.”
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With that in mind, we asked our Evolve clinicians to highlight specific Black people – whether present or past – who have inspired them in their work as therapists.
Hidden Figures: Influential Black Americans Now
For Boffoli, one such contemporary leader is Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D., an award-winning psychologist from Stanford University who has conducted extensive research into the association between race and crime. Her research showed that police officers are more likely to identify Black faces as criminal than white faces. These findings guide police departments in trainings on implicit biases, which is “so important in this day and age,” Boffoli says. “This past year has highlighted the severe racial tension and conflict in the U.S.”
Monica Ippolito, LMFT, Primary Therapist at Evolve San Jose, points to Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, Ph.D., the first Black woman to earn her doctoral degree in psychology from Columbia University. Along with husband Kenneth Clark, who was the first Black person to earn a doctorate in psychology from Columbia, Mamie conducted the famous “doll study” experiments on self-identification in Black children. Their findings – that Black children saw themselves as inferior – was used as evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that abolished segregation in American public schools. “The ‘doll study’ is something that has always stuck with me about how children see race,” says Ippolito.
Intersectionality and Implicit Bias
For Natalie Tenenbaum, MSW, Primary Therapist at Evolve Camarillo IOP/PHP, contemporary psychologists Dr. Wendy Ashley and Dr. Allen Lipscomb have been “incredibly knowledgeable and inspiring” role models. As experts and leaders in cross-cultural awareness and intersectionality, Drs. Ashley and Lipscomb aim to increase understanding of the implicit biases clinicians bring to therapy spaces and have spent years teaching therapists how to be actively anti-racist and inclusive. “I’ve learned from them that we can have privilege in some areas but not others, and we all exist in our own intersections,” says Tenenbaum. “Being marginalized in more than one area really multiplies the impact on our mental health and ability to thrive.”
Mental Health and the Black Community
When it comes to mental health, statistics show that Black populations are more vulnerable to mental health issues than white populations.
Black children/teenagers are:
- More likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers.
- The rate is 9.8 % vs. 6.1% – more than a 3% difference.
- Twice as likely to die from suicide if they are children.
- Suicide rates in African American children aged 5-11 years have increased steadily since the 1980s. They’re now double those of their Caucasian counterparts.
- 20% more likely than whites to experience mental health issues such as depression, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation.
Those aren’t the only glaring disparities. Black people are disproportionally vulnerable to medical conditions such as heart disease. Black women have an alarmingly high mortality rate. Larisa Karvon, LCSW, says that these facts are “unsurprising” given the multiple risk factors – and a dearth of preventative factors – that exist among Black families.
The Role of Poverty
Poverty is one such example. A third of Black children live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of white children. The high poverty rate in the Black community is both a risk factor for multiple mental health issues and a barrier to accessing mental health treatment.
“Since we now know the mental health of any child is intricately connected to the social, political and economic policies and conditions of their immediate and extended environment, it is little wonder that we continue to see high suicide rates among Black children,” writes Dr. Uchenna Umeh, pediatrician and author of How to Teach Your Children About Racism: A Letter From A Black Mother to White Parents.
Other risk factors include systemic oppression of and physical violence towards Black people, discrimination and racial trauma, parental mental illness, and disruptive family dynamics.
Larisa Karvon knows a good place to start correcting these inequalities.
“Improve the risk factors, and you’ll see a reduction in the rate of mental health issues,” Karvon says, who admits this type of change needs to happen on a structural level in the U.S.
The Treatment Gap
In addition to a higher prevalence of mental health issues in Black people, there is also a higher treatment gap. Black families don’t access mental health services as often as their white counterparts—in fact, they’re half as likely to do so. Barriers include stigma, lack of means or education, negative past experiences, and/or mistrust of mental health providers.
To close the treatment gap, decreasing stigma is essential. Monica Ippolito, LMFT, says she’s pleased that celebrities such as Taraji P. Henson and Jada Pinkett Smith help spread awareness that getting help “does not mean something is wrong with you.”
To tackle the issue of awareness, Tenenbaum suggests that clinicians take opportunities to travel to underserved communities to give presentations on therapeutic services offered. Additionally, she says advocating for healthcare coverage has the potential to make substantial changes on a macro policy level.
“Advocacy would increase the likelihood that we would be able to deliver those services to people of color who need it,” Tenenbaum says, “because it would remove one of the important barriers: funding.”
On a practical level, Boffoli recommends increasing resources around transportation and childcare, as well as providing more flexibility in scheduling and timing of services.
However, even when Black Americans do access care, the issue of unequal treatment in the healthcare system is still problematic.
“Studies have shown that doctors falsely believe Black people can withstand a higher level of pain, which affects their pain assessment and treatment recommendations,” Karvon says. “It is disheartening to know that when we express our issues, we’re not taken seriously.” This bias exists even when it comes to affluent Black Americans who have the means to pay for the best care they can get, she adds. “Even [professional tennis player] Serena Williams had to fight to get her voice heard in the hospital after her daughter’s birth.”
Solving Racial Bias in Healthcare
This brings us to the next point: cross-cultural competence in healthcare professionals.
“One way to overcome the racial bias implicit in healthcare (as well as in any field) is to actively spend time educating oneself,” Karvon says.
She highlights Emmanuel Acho’s “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” as a good place to start on the journey towards understanding racial relations. Acho, a former NFL star, speaks candidly on race relations and what it means to be Black in the modern day. His videos and podcast have garnered millions of hits since they’ve been created. They’ve “opened up many people’s eyes about race,” Ippolito says.
“While conversations about race are often painful and difficult, Acho makes it palatable and relatable to the general public,” Karvon explains.
At the same time, it’s important for clinicians to understand that no two clients are the same when they sit down in the therapy room. In counseling teens and families, Tenenbaum says she works hard to “ask questions, pay attention to the way the family members interact with each other, and listen hard to understand the family values, which often reflect values of their culture.” She elaborates, pointing out that “…it’s important not to assume that all teens have a similar upbringing and take the same approach with each family.”
Black people have faced systemic oppression, persecution, and discrimination in America since the 17th century. From the beginning of the brutal and inhumane practice of chattel slavery in the colonies in 1619, through the Civil War in the 19th century, to the Jim Crow period in the 20th century, and continuing to the present day, the legacy of inequality and persecution in what we now call the United States persists. While there has been considerable progress, Black people still face significant exclusion, mistreatment, and discrimination.
“Here in America, in the greatest country on the planet, I still have to fight to be seen for my humanity in 2021,” Karvon says. “I have to struggle for my rights as a Black person, as a woman, and as both. I don’t think most people take the time to think about this, especially if they aren’t Black.”
While addressing discrimination requires, as Karvon describes, “an internal, structural upheaval in our political, social, educational and financial systems,” even just learning about Black history can improve society. “America needs to educate itself about race on both the macro and micro level. While the historical events and occurrences of the past happened years ago, they still affect our day-to-day living. It’s not just Black history – it’s American history. The attitude is often ‘Just move on.’ But we can’t. Nor should we.”
“There needs to be an opening of minds and a reckoning of historical facts – not a sweeping under the rug,” Karvon adds.
Jordan Carter, Evolve San Diego Clinical Program Director, champions this cause as well. “We need to listen carefully, be allies, and actively work on being anti-racist.”
Black History Should Be Taught All Year Long
Of course, it can take a lifetime of learning and education to gain a solid understanding of race relations in America. Black history encompasses more than can be discussed in a single article, a single day, or an entire month.
“While having this annual month of awareness is nice,” Karvon says, “I am Black 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This is my lived experience. My Blackness is on deck every single day – not just during February.” Karvon advises people to consider this month as a starting point on their educational journey.
“The last decade has really highlighted the fact that we still have a long way to go to reach equity in this country,” Tenenbaum says.
Black History Resources
To learn more about Black History, please consult these books, websites, and articles, compiled by Larisa Karvon, LCSW: