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Black Mental Health Matters: Interview with a Registered Social Worker

Black Mental Health Matters: Interview with a Registered Social Worker

Since the death of George Floyd, Black mental health has been a hot topic. But, in truth, it's always mattered. We've just been too busy fighting oppression, establishing careers, building families, dusting ourselves off, and proving we deserve a seat at the table to give it the attention it deserves. But Floyd's murder at the hands of the police changed all of that. On that day, Black people let out a collective cry, and no matter where you were, you felt it. Years of racial inequalities, discrimination, and violence came crashing in, unearthing deep-set racial traumas. As a result, mental health issues like anxiety and depression are on the rise in the Black community. We can no longer afford to avoid the burden that racism has placed on our health.

While seeking treatment is traditionally shunned in Black communities, more Black people have turned to therapy to help them cope in recent months. I was fortunate to interview a therapist who's making it her mission to tackle Black Mental Health head-on in her work and the community.

Nicole Franklin, MSW RSW, is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in Toronto, Canada. She has been counseling individuals and families for over 10 years. Four years ago, she started her own private practice, Live Free Counselling Services. In response to these traumatic times, Nicole recently spearheaded a community initiative, the Black Mental Health Matters Campaign, that directly addresses mental health and the Black community. The campaign is supported through her Black Mental Health Fund and provides individuals and families within the Black community with access to low-cost therapy and free workshops. This past summer, participants worldwide took part in these workshops to discuss the impact of COVID-19 and the racial pandemic on their lives. The campaign also provides funding to support mentoring programs for new counselors.

Nicole is passionate about what she does, and it was a privilege to speak with her. She had a lot to say about normalizing Black mental health and treatment needs in the Black community.

Do you think there’s still an uphill battle to get the message out in the Black community that seeking therapy is okay?

Definitely! I feel like we still have a lot of work to do. It starts with the systems. They need to change, or our community and families will continue to have difficulty trusting them. Generation after generation, we have been taught that what happens in the home, stays in the home. And many people have experienced being failed by the systems. They don't trust that the system is confidential or set up to support them.

Another issue is the fact that there aren't many counselors that look like us. There is a great need for more Black counselors who can relate to our unique needs.

Finally, a lot of people have the wrong impression of what counseling is supposed to look like. They think it's supposed to be a quick fix for problems. But counseling is complex, hard work, and an ongoing journey.

What can we do to normalize treatment/therapy in our community?

The problem is that often Black people are not referred to counseling or for mental health support enough. Systems and the people making the decisions (emergency services, police, child services, school systems, etc.) often don't see us or our issues. They don't understand them as linked to mental health. Those systems are the first points of contact, so they need a better understanding of mental health and the Black community's unique needs.

Within our community, we need to change our perception of what therapy is and how it can support us. We're trying to change the belief that counseling should only be sought out when things are really bad. Most people seek counseling when everything else has been tried, but counseling can also be extremely effective as prevention. Therapy can help you to catch the stress signals beforehand, so coping strategies are more effective. We'd like to see therapy be normalized as part of a regular self-care routine.

By most accounts, we're in the middle of two pandemics – a racial one and the coronavirus. How have these pandemics impacted people as a whole and, more specifically, Black people?

It's okay not to be okay right now. Things are uncertain. We don't know what's coming next; this all impacts our overall mental health and wellbeing. As far as COVID, systems are moving, and people are seeking solutions. Things are moving ahead quite rapidly. Regarding the Black lives matter movement as a second pandemic, people are seeking the same urgency in making change and addressing systemic issues; we would like to see the same energy. We need immediate action and changes put in place. And we want to see those changes implemented quickly. Our mental health and our lives depend on it.

This is not the first Black Lives Matter uprising, but because of the pandemic, it's the first one where everyone is paying close attention and listening. Even the pandemic is disproportionality affecting black people because of the social determinants of health and less access to resources. We are demanding change collectively. It's the first time that we feel like we're being heard. People are listening and asking us different questions. They're also asking themselves hard questions. It's this momentum I hope we keep. The solution will not be a quick fix or a one-time training for teams. This is a complex systemic issue that needs long-lasting, radical change.

What impact is racial trauma having on our everyday lives?

The most significant impact is how we talk about racism within systems and workplaces. Black people notice differences in treatment compared to others but don't feel they can always call people on it. Online, in the community, and in the streets, Black people are fighting for justice. But within the workplace, it's a different experience. For us to reach those spaces where we are considered successful and where we are often the only Black person, we put on this other layer or version of ourselves to tolerate or manage microaggressions. It's stressful to constantly take off and put on these different versions of ourselves, which plays into our mental health. And over time, these microaggressions can cause significant impacts as a result of racial trauma.

Not being seen or heard, being overlooked for jobs, being treated unfairly, or not being allowed to take up space are experiences linked to racial trauma. And they are just some of the experiences that play into our self-worth. We continuously question ourselves, and then we are confronted with people who doubt that those experiences are racism. Developing safe spaces to talk about racism, having others validate our experience, and naming it has been a big part of our healing during these complex times. That's why when we see it play out on tv, like the George Floyd incident, we are brought to tears because we see ourselves, our kids, our family. That is us that we're watching.

In your practice and among your Black clients/group members, what kinds of feelings are people experiencing?

Black people are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. They feel overwhelmed; some are feeling anxious and depressed. They have mixed feelings because of the intersectionality of all of our experiences. The two pandemics have brought many mental health issues and a lot of intergenerational trauma to the surface. Before COVID, people busied themselves to avoid their mental health issues and feelings, but quarantine made those feelings hard to ignore. Sometimes, when one part of our system is triggered, it alerts other emotions. When we experience racial trauma, for example, it can trigger other forms of experienced trauma like family trauma and individual trauma. People say to us, 'I'm just surviving,' and we're saying, 'that's okay if that's all you can do right now.'

What does self-care mean to you, and what is the distinction between it and radical self-care?

When I talk about self-care for Black people, I don't separate it from radical self-care acts. Taking care of ourselves in a world that we feel has not been taking care of us and our needs makes self-care a racial act. We are always so busy taking care of others that it's almost taboo, or we feel guilty for us to take care of ourselves. Self-care, in itself, is a radical act. Taking up space is a radical act. Talking about what we need and what we want is a radical act. Because society continually tells us that we're not good enough, reclaiming that we are and learning to return home to loving ourselves is a radical act.

It's great to go to the spa and have a massage and have a yoga session in the park, but not everyone has access to those outlets. We need to ensure more accessibility and diversity in wellness spaces. Wellness can also be resting, setting boundaries, and saying no more. It's crucial that unlearning is happening in regards to our self-care. That we're rethinking what mental health looks like, what taking care of ourselves looks like. Rest as part of the revolution is simple and groundbreaking for Black people to think about it. We never give ourselves permission, and society doesn't give us permission to do those types of things.

How can we support someone who is seeking treatment or having problems coping?

The first thing you want to do is a check-in with yourself. You may be worried about a friend or a loved one, but you need to see where you are in managing their issues. Then take time to check-in with them and ask how they are doing. Try to really listen and validate their feelings, rather than minimize or insert your opinion, just be there for them.

Second, start small. There are so many ways to be engaged and involved with support. If someone isn't ready for individual counseling sessions, you might try to get online. Look up workshops and live streams that explore the diverse ways to take care of your mental health and wellbeing. You may also access a community group or try a walk-in session at a community mental health agency.

Third, it may take more than one try to find a counselor that's a good fit. Let the person that you're trying to support know that it may not be easy to find a good fit right away. Finding a Black counselor or person of color can be a challenge, and that needs to change. This issue is why we are currently focusing some of our efforts on mentoring for Black social workers; representation is so important.

Fourth, know that you can't push somebody to be ready for change or counseling. Be that listening ear and listen actively. You can only suggest they try counseling and talk with them about the benefits. But readiness is key to the effectiveness of therapy.

What would you suggest people do who are having a hard time coping right now?

Number one, if the person is feeling in crisis or it's an emergency, the first thing you need to do is call a crisis number or reach out to an emergency setting. However, I also know there is a lot of work to do within emergency/ crisis response systems, especially in understanding the needs of the Black community.

If it's not a crisis, you might try to find a counselor that is a good fit for you. People get confused about the titles – counselor, therapists, psychotherapist – but when you need support, like in a time such as this, don't let those distinctions deter you. Check to see if you have benefits through your work. If you don't feel you can afford a counselor, look for ones who have a sliding scale rate, which means that they will take clients at varying fees based on their situation.

Some people try therapy only once and rule it out, but finding a good fit is important. Everyone looking for counselors should talk to two or three and now is a good time because you can attend virtual sessions. You won't even need to leave your home. Look out for online offerings and workshops too.

If there is one thing you want Black people dealing with trauma to know, what would that be?

The main thing is that you're not alone. When trauma is really profound in your life, you can often feel so hopeless. Knowing that there are supports available and that we're all experiencing this in some way, on some level, and to some degree, is something that people have found helpful.

If you or anyone you know needs counseling and would like to get in touch with Nicole visit her website at Live Free Counselling Services. Find more info on her workshops and other useful self-care advice on Instagram @livefreecs and Facebook @livefreecounsellingservices. You can also purchase her self-care t-shirts @selfcareshoptoronto. Proceeds from the sales of the shirts help support the initiatives of the Black Mental Health Fund.

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