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Pandemic, social unrest increase need for therapists of color, accentuate shortage

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Dr. Monique Swift

Jeannine Adams was already listening and offering help as a therapist, but she sought out someone to talk with. A Black woman, Adams "wanted to see someone I felt I could relate to."

That wasn't always easy. It usually required a long drive from her Morris County home, often to Montclair. 

The demand for therapists of color has historically surpassed the supply. Current events, including the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest, have made the need greater.

Adams, who grew up in Victory Gardens and Randolph, wanted to go into private practice after earning her master's degree in social work. She knew the need for therapists of color was particularly acute in Morris County.

Adams wanted to serve her community when she launched her part-time practice in Succasunna more than a year ago. She added herself to directories aimed at people of color, like Therapy for Black Girls, but didn't "market more aggressively." 

About 90% or her caseload is comprised of people from the Black, Latino and Asian communities. 

"Even I was surprised how many African American clients I got from western Morris County: Budd Lake, Mount Olive, Flanders, Succasunna sometimes, Dover, Rockaway. I think a lot of my African American clients are searching," said Adams, who also works full time as a mental health clinician with Rutgers University behavioral health in New Brunswick.

Growing need

In 2015, the latest figures available, 86% of psychologists working in the United States identified as white, according to an American Psychological Association report. At the time, the U.S. population was 62% white. 

Only 5% of psychologists identified as Asian, 5% Hispanic, 4% Black, and 1% multiracial or from another group.

The New Jersey Psychological Association does not keep race-based statistics for its membership, according to its President Lucy Takagi.

A Brazilian emigrant with a part-time practice in the Ironbound section of Newark, many of Takagi's clients speak Portuguese — adding another twist to the therapeutic process.

Jesselly De La Cruz, a Hudson County native and the president of the Latino Mental Health Association of New Jersey, earned her doctorate in social work at Rutgers.

A first-generation college graduate, De La Cruz said she earned a master's degree in social work, but "never got a master's in translation." Yet she does what is necessary to help her multilingual clients — at rates they are able to afford.

"COVID made it explicit, some of the needs that communities of color always had to struggle with: unemployment, health conditions, lack of insurance, lack of coverage for mental health," said Takagi, a clinical specialist in the Robert D. McCormick Center for Child Advocacy and Policy at Montclair State University.

"The need has always been there, but COVID, all of a sudden, impacted everyone. Once it becomes visible to people in power, who might be less diverse, it becomes of importance."

The rise of the social justice movement following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has inspired many people of color to take to the streets in protest as well as to seek safe spaces to process what is happening.

A 2018 study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Institutes of Health found police killings of unarmed Black Americans cause adverse effects on the mental health of Blacks in the general population. Those effects may last for months, the study found.

Monique Swift and Barbara Prempeh are facilitators for a Newark-based trauma initiative organized by Equal Justice USA, trying to build empathy and mutual understanding between police officers and the community.

That has been significantly slowed by COVID-19, though Swift expects the 16-hour training to shift online in September. The pandemic also shuttered most offices, forcing clinicians to use phone calls and virtual platforms.

Building a trusting therapeutic relationship can be even more difficult through a screen.

Swift's private practice in Rahway is full, as are those of many of the Black psychologists to whom she would refer potential clients. Though she receives a "steady stream" of calls at her office, use of a collaborative "Community Cares Listening Line" designed for Black essential workers has been "unexpectedly low." A certified disaster response crisis counselor, Swift also volunteered for a little-used "listening line" run by the state of New Jersey.

"People are not calling hotlines that were set up as an extra layer of support and access for the community to get the care they need," said Swift, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists.

"We're under pretty extreme circumstances with COVID and the sequence of racial affronts that have happened at the same time. I think that stigma (against seeking therapy) is still in the way and a relevant barrier."

Nationwide, the clinical workforce appears to be becoming more diverse, with 34% of early-career psychologists identifying as racial minorities. About one-third of psychology doctorates earned in 2016 were by members of minority groups. 

However, there are additional layers of training and certification required to become independently licensed and enter private practice. Therapists and psychologists must log supervised clinical hours, often via unpaid internships. There are also licensing exams for counselors, social workers and psychologists.

"There's always been a need for people of color to get their degrees and practice independently," said Prempeh, the externship program coordinator at the Metropolitan Regional Diagnostic & Treatment Center at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

"That was the push for me to keep going, no matter how many times it took me to pass this (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology). There's a child who looks like me who needs me to be their therapist."

Jane Havsy is a sports reporter for For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.

Originally Posted HERE

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