Millions of African Americans experience mental illness each year, but face obstacles to effective treatment their white peers do not endure. Practitioners without experience living as an African American person or who lack the cultural competency to relate to and empathize with that experience can hinder attempts by African Americans to obtain effective care.
The trauma of experiencing racism can be a huge influence on mental health status. Additionally, a history of oppression in the United States has led to increased rates of poverty and homelessness among African Americans that can also increase the likelihood of mental illness.
Effective mental health care for African Americans requires understanding, empathy, and fluency in what it specifically means to live as an African American in America, which is why many African Americans prefer seeking care from African American practitioners (or, at the very least, those specifically educated in cultural competency). However, this can prove difficult because African American clinicians are vastly underrepresented in the mental health community – as noted in a piece on the African American experience in mental health care from Counseling@NYU, which offers an online master’s in mental health counseling from NYU Steinhardt. Dr. Norissa Williams, a clinical assistant professor at the program, says that feeling culturally misunderstood is something that she and many clients face when working with mental health professionals. Being able to talk candidly and openly with clinicians about African American culture and African American issues, Williams said, was something she had to leave at the door. The NYU Steinhardt piece highlights the need for more African American clinicians and researchers in the field to better represent and treat communities of color and underserved communities.
As mental health experts and activists work to improve conditions of and opportunities for care for African Americans, we look back at some of the often-overlooked African American pioneers who have made lasting contributions to the field of mental health care.
Solomon Fuller (1872-1953)
Dr. Solomon Fuller was the first African American psychiatrist to be recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. He graduated from Boston University School of Medicine in 1897, and went on to study neurodegenerative diseases, including schizophrenia, manic depression, and Alzheimer’s. While a doctor at Massachusetts Westborough State Mental Hospital, he made history-altering discoveries through his research on how Alzheimer’s physically changes the brain.
Inez Beverly Prosser (1897-1934)
Inez Beverly Prosser was the first African American woman to receive a PhD in psychology. She studied self-esteem in African American middle school children who attended segregated schools versus integrated schools. Although she died young, she made landmark contributions to the field of psychology and appeared in 1933, in recognition of her historical degree, on the cover of the official magazine of the NAACP.
Herman George Canady (1901-1970)
Herman George Canady studied racial bias in IQ testing. He served as a psychology professor at multiple institutions including Howard University and studied the self-concept of African Americans throughout his lifetime. He also acted as an expert witness for the NAACP in segregation and employment discrimination cases.
Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983)
The first African American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, Mamie Phipps Clark researched the effects of discrimination and racial identity on the psychology of black Americans. She and her husband, Kenneth Clark, were behind the now well-known Doll Test, which studied the psychological toll of segregation on African American children. In the experiment, children were asked to name races of identical black and white dolls and choose the one they preferred. Most favored the white doll. The Clarks’ discoveries were used as testimony in the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that declared state laws creating separate public schools for African American and white students were unconstitutional.
Maxie Clarence Maultsby Jr. (1932-2016)
Maxie Clarence Maultsby Jr. was a psychologist who studied emotional and behavioral self-management and founded rational behavior therapy. His book “Rational Behavior Therapy“ explored the cognitive-behavioral methodology. He also served as a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Howard University.
Joseph L. White (1932-2017)
Expert, activist, and educator Joseph L. White’s contributions to psychology and education were myriad. His most notable work is perhaps “Toward a Black Psychology,” that argued mainstream psychology developed by and for white people did not apply to the African American experience and was, in fact, discriminatory against African American patients. Throughout his career, he challenged prominent psychological institutions for their racial bias, pushing, for example, for increased representation of African American clinicians in the American Psychological Association. White was also the founder of a California education initiative aimed at giving minority students more opportunity to receive higher education.
Beverly Daniel Tatum (1954-present)
Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spellman College from 2002-2015, is a psychologist who studies the development of racial identity and race in education. Her 1997 book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” explores the psychology of racial identity development. After leaving her post at Spellman College, she set to work on updating the book, adding analysis of recent historical movements like Black Lives Matter and the pushback against affirmative action policies.
These pioneers provide a solid ground for all Americans to stand on as they consider seeking treatment. It is reassuring to have them not only be pioneers, but to serve as advocates for mental health awareness. Thanks to all of their contributions to mental health research, we are able to make the necessary strides to a more inclusive and stigma-free America.
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. digital PR coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.
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