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Gemima St. Louis Ph.D.

Leveling the Mental Health Counseling Racial Playing Field

We can no longer afford the lack of diversity in mental health counseling.

By Natalie Cort, Ph.D., guest contributor

Black History Month is an important and necessary time to showcase the many accomplishments of African-Americans/Black individuals, but as we recognize Black History Month, we must acknowledge that the limited numbers of mental health professionals from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds prevents ubiquitous implicit negative biases about people of color, resulting from America’s historical and contemporary racialized inequities, from being challenged and dismantled.

Research shows more than 6.8 million self-identified African-Americans/Black individuals had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year, which is more people than the populations of Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia combined1. As a consequence of historical institutional discrimination and marginalization, African-Americans experience socioeconomic disparities, such as homelessness, poverty, incarceration or substance abuse, that can increase their risk for mental illness. Despite the obvious need for care, there is an absence of competent and compassionate care for all people. More specifically, an absence of adequate mental health care for racial/ethnic minority communities.

William James College
Students in the Black Mental Health Graduate Academy at William James College
Source: William James College

African-Americans in need of mental health care are frequently reluctant to seek treatment, due to fears about mental health professionals’ abilities to provide culturally competent care2. These fears are warranted as research has robustly indicated that racial/ethnic minorities are frequently subjected to negative implicit racial biases and microaggressions displayed by health professionals3. These biases are associated with disproportionate misdiagnoses, the provision of poor-quality mental health treatment and increased disability4 among people of color, especially Black/African-American individuals.

Racial/ethnic minorities represent 30 percent of the population, yet 83.6 percent of mental health professionals identify as non-Hispanic White5. In 2013, only 5.3 percent of psychologists were African-American6 and today only 5 percent of Black students are enrolled in graduate-level psychology programs7. The United States’ rapidly increasing ethnic and linguistic diversity requires multifaceted efforts to diversify the mental health workforce.

Source: iStock

As Black History Month ends, we must recommit our efforts to continue recruiting and training more individuals from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds to build a powerful mental healthcare workforce. This begins with educating a more diverse and culturally informed workforce trained to competently treat racial and ethnic minorities. We must continue to create clinical training programs that work to address the mental health disparities among disenfranchised populations in the U.S.

America’s burgeoning and enriching multiculturalism, requires that, to remain relevant in the lives of our most vulnerable citizens, the mental health field vigorously celebrate and advocate for the excellence that is achieved though racial/ethnic diversity.




[3] Smedley, B., Stith, A., & Nelson, A. Eds. (2002). Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

[4] New Freedom Commission on Mental Health

[5] (Duffy et al., 2004).

[6] (American Psychological Association [APA], 2015)

[7] (APA Center for Workforce Studies, 2010).


About the Author

Gemima St. Louis, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at William James College.