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Black Access to Mental Health Care: Going Beyond Self-Care to Professional Help

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

ourselves black www.ourselvesblack.com

In mental health access seems to be king. After all, if you can’t actually obtain the services of a mental health professional when you need one, stigma, parity and other issues quickly become secondary. Part 1 of this series on access to mental health services for African Americans explored the reality of the stark shortage of black psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists who specialize in mental and emotional health. The popularity of self-care approaches to mental health needs has tended to obscure needed discussions on how to care for African Americans who might need professional treatment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s(SAMHSA) 2014 data indicate that 16.6% of the Black population had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year. Over six million people potentially need care beyond self-care. This Part 2 in our series on black access to mental health care examines the path that can be taken to mental wellness, and the obstacles one might encounter.

Do I Need to See Someone?

In 2015 the predecessor to this site, BlackMentalHealthNet.com published a feature called Go Ahead & Ask in which a psychologist was asked about what can be considered normal levels of stress for African Americans and how one can know when the experience with stress warrants something beyond self-help. In his response, Dr. Erlanger Turner, a professor at the University of Houston and Director of its Race, Culture, and Mental Health Lab had this to say:

“The truth is, we all experience some stress from time to time because it is a part of life. Stress is a warning sign that “something needs to change” or to help boost our motivation to perform. However, extreme, chronic stress can cause problems for you mentally and lead to poor health….If you notice signs such as being tired, concentration problems, short temper, or poor eating habits (not eating or over eating), it may be time to seek out professional help from a therapist.”
— Dr. Erlanger Turner

The historical and contemporary experiences of African Americans have unfortunately taught them that being tired, not eating properly, and some irritability are par for the course and often go unnoticed if not unacknowledged so that those types of symptoms alone might not trigger a warning for many Blacks, especially women. Changes in key functional areas of life and disposition are maybe more likely to be acted upon in the contexts in which many African Americans live and work. Dr. Nichole Harris, a clinical psychologist and founder and principal of The Center for Psychological Health, points out that self-care is fine as long as mental and emotional challenges are manageable. “However, if there are observable emotional, mental, or somatic [physical, bodily symptoms] changes and marked decline in educational, relational, or occupational functioning then that’s the benchmark for seeking professional help.”

 What Kind of Help is Available?

(All occupational information obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website)

 Psychologists (clinical)

Assess, diagnose, treat emotional/behavioral disorders. Can prescribe medication only in Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

Interview patients, administer diagnostic tests, behavior modification

(Counseling) help deal with problems at home, work, community. Help identify resources to help manage issues.

Education: Doctoral degree (Clinical and counseling)


Types: mental health counselors, marriage & Family therapists, substance abuse and behavioral disorders counselors, social workers

Practicing requires a license by a state Board

Mental health counselors

Diagnose/treat anxiety, depression and other mental disorders

Help develop strategies/skills to change behavior and cope with situations

Marriage/family therapists

Trained in family systems and counseling (psychotherapy)

Similar to mental health counselors but they provide family-centered treatment, even for an individual. Focus on relationships as well as the client.

Social workers (clinical)

Diagnose/treat anxiety, depression and other emotional/behavioral disorders

Diagnose/treat mental illness

Can prescribe medication and perform/order medical tests-MD or DO degree


Psychoanalysis – long term therapy integrating analysis of past experiences and personal history

Counseling (psychotherapy)

Medication (as determined necessary)

Practicing requires being licensed by a stateboard

How Can I Find a Professional?

Finding a psychiatrist or therapist can be challenging. These resources can be used as a starting point:

AfricanAmericanTherapists.com has a directory of 129 black therapists and counselors arranged by location

Association of Black Psychologists has a directory of 110 black psychologists

Black Psychiatrists of America doesn’t have a directory but can be contacted at (855) 435-5077

African American Marriage Counselors a more extensive directory of counselors who focus on marriage issues; not all are licensed counselors so choose carefully

National Association of Black Social Workers doesn’t have a directory but can be contacted at  (202) 678-4570

Also check for state and/or local chapters of national associations (e.g., Georgia chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists).

Chandra C.