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Promoting Black Mental Health and Wellness

Why restricting discussions on racism harms black mental health.

Key points

  • The mental health of Black people is impacted by the sociopolitical influences of our societal climate.
  • Clinical work with Black clients often requires a willingness and ability to engage in painful discussions about race and racism.
  • Black students are frequent targets of racist epithets and racist bullying.
  • Efforts to restrict discussions about race and racism should concern all psychologists who work in diverse school settings.

Like all minoritized groups, the mental health of Black people is impacted by the sociopolitical influences of our societal climate. After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, there was an increase in anxiety and depression for Black Americans. According to data from the Census Bureau, within a week of George Floyd’s death, depression and anxiety increased higher among the Black community than any other racial or ethnic group.

The recent murder of yet another Black person, Amir Locke, by police is a grim reminder that every day there is a constant sociopolitical threat to the well-being and existence of Black people.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to connect the theme of Black health and wellness to the sociopolitical climate and the efforts of Black psychologists. The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) has engaged in several activities to enhance Black mental health and wellness, including a) providing African-centered healing circles (a.k.a., Sawubona, which is Zulu for “I see you”), and b) collaborating with the Community Healing Network to conduct emotional emancipation circles that focus on overcoming the lie of Black inferiority and the emotional legacies of enslavement and racism.

Addressing Anti-Black Racism With Black Clients

In my edited book Making Black Lives Matter: Confronting Anti-Black Racism, two chapters discuss clinical work with Black men and women. In one chapter, licensed psychologist Rico Mosby noted the pain and heightened race-related stress experienced by his Black male clients and described how he uses culturally tailored techniques to help Black males deal with circumstances such as their emotional reactivity to police interactions.

In another chapter, licensed psychologist Ifetayo Ojelade noted how dealing with the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism is exhausting for Black women. In her clinical work, Ojelade emphasized the importance of finding Black joy as being crucial for the emotional well-being of Black women.

Black psychologists have long understood that conducting therapy with Black clients often requires a willingness and ability to engage in painful discussions about race and racism. In fact, a central component of optimal mental health for Black people is having the ability to cope with and combat racism and discrimination.

Consider the importance of having culturally informed Black school psychologists work with Black students. Black school psychologists can help Black students be better understood within their racialized school experiences and not be pathologized. Being able to share the lived experience of being Black and openly discuss experiences of racism is one of the important roles Black psychologists serve.

Anti-Black Racism in Schools

Several months ago, I received an email from a distraught Black mother about her 11-year-old boy. Her son is the only Black child in his class and one of a handful of Black students in the school. Since the beginning of 2021, her son has been called the n-word three times in school, and the school still had not done anything. She was seeking advice for her son, who had not resorted to violence because she had begged him not to, but she didn’t think she would be able to stop him the next time it happened.

When a white fifth-grader used the n-word against three Black classmates at a Washington, DC elementary school and stated, “I don’t care if I’m racist,” the student was not disciplined immediately. The parents of the Black students were not immediately notified about the incident, and the school struggled to move forward after some parents believed the school handled the incident poorly.

Last year some Black students at a Texas high school were too scared to attend classes after a series of racist texts circulated on campus. The texts included the statements “no Black people allowed” on a party bus and “All ‘N-word’ must hang.” The school offered counseling services to the students impacted by the incident while implementing disciplinary action against the students involved.

Imagine being a psychologist working in these schools and not being willing to have an open and honest discussion about racism. Now imagine having a culturally competent psychologist, especially a Black psychologist, who could clinically intervene in a way that helped the Black students heal (individual level) and challenge the schools to change their climate and response to racist incidents (institutional level). This does not happen without having difficult conversations about race and racism.

One might be tempted to see these incidents as infrequent acts of individual racism. However, the reality is that there are countless examples of Black students and students of color being targets of racist epithets and subjected to racist bullying. In fact, racist hate at schools has increased across the country. Students are clearly aware that race matters, and in the case of some white students, they know that weaponizing the n-word is the ultimate way to belittle and dehumanize Black students. This is why efforts to stifle discussion about race and racism in schools are so deeply troubling.

Is Teaching About Racism Divisive?

Across the country, several legislative proposals have been introduced to target discussions of racism and related issues of oppression in American history in schools, colleges, and universities. Currently, 36 states have introduced or adopted policies or laws to restrict teaching about race or racism, with more states likely to be added to this list.

Lawmakers have expressed concerns about teaching students “divisive concepts” and making white students feel bad about being white. These legislative proposals are largely solutions in search of a non-existent critical race theory (CRT) problem. While there have been some misguided attempts to address race and racism in schools, CRT as an academic framework is not systematically taught in schools.

As a professor who teaches from a Black psychology perspective, I believe we need to push back on the duplicitous narrative that teaching about race and the systemic, institutionalized nature of racism is harmful and divisive.

I find it curious that there is so much concern about not making students feel bad about being white, but there is no concern expressed about not making students feel bad about being Black in schools. Critics of CRT and having discussions about racism in schools never talk about the harm being experienced by Black and other minoritized students who experience racism.

I am concerned about the racial trauma that Black students experience in schools from students and teachers. Where is the moral outcry for these students?

Efforts to address racial trauma and promote Black mental health and wellness are negatively impacted in educational environments where educators are afraid of losing their jobs at the mere mention of systemic racism.

Efforts to restrict teaching and discussions about race and racism should concern all psychologists who work in diverse (and even not so diverse) school settings. More Black psychologists and culturally competent psychologists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who are skilled in addressing anti-Black racism are needed to serve the mental health needs of Black students and adults.

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