Black Mental Health Pioneers and Breaking Barriers to Care

It is Black History Month and the topic is black health.

Today we will talk about an African-American couple who were pioneers for Mental Health in the Black Community. The first is Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark who was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in psychology from Columbia University. She previously earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University.
Her experience in college and specifically graduate-level courses helped her realize the shortage of psychological services available to the African American community and other minorities. Her husband, Dr. Kenneth Clark was the first-ever black president of the American Psychological Association.
The Clarks are best known for the famous “Doll Study” in which more than 200 Black children participated. Both Mamie and Kenneth Clark worked on this study, providing invaluable evidence in favor of ending school segregation in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. The Board of Education, citing that school segregation was psychologically harmful to black children. In February 1946, Dr. Mamie Clark and her husband opened the doors of “The Northside Center for Child Development” for those in the Harlem area. 
She worked in the center counseling and provided other psychological services from 1946 until 1979 when she retired.

Here are five cultural and socioeconomic road blocks that may prevent blacks and others from seeking mental health services.

1. High Costs.

 Without health insurance mental health services can seem like an unnecessary and final burden. Some may have to choose between food, shelter and basic necessities and seeking or continuing care. I personally think it should be affordable, if not free but funding to provide such services would have been to be thoroughly examined.

2. Shaming from family and friends.

Many family members and friends see mental health services as a sign of weakness. If you admit you need to work on something, it is an admission of fault or imperfection. Oddly enough, if someone wants to go to the gym to work out or eat better or learn a new skill that is praised. Mental health is similar. Some of us need to work on our skills and strengthen or “mental” muscles. No shame in that at all, in fact it would be foolish not to do it.

3. Confusing Religion and Beliefs with Mental Health

This one is controversial, as for many their higher power or God by virtue of belief is supposed to solve any human condition. Although praying or having faith, it is not the same as mental health care. We can pray to be skinny or lose weight but it’s the act of actually eating correctly or going to the gym that produces the results. Mental health is similar. “Faith without works” is ineffective. Some people also have mental conditions that truly do require medication, not wishful thinking or prayer. These people tend to suffer needlessly.

4. Lack of Diversity in Health Care Professionals

One of the issues is that there aren’t a lot of people who may relate or look like blacks in health care. Part of this is systemic and part of it is cultural. Without someone who “gets you”, it can be very difficult to pursue services.  At worse, the experience turns out to be profoundly negative. Some people have even been told things like “get over it” in regards to struggles surrounding racism that are very real and true to some. Another issue could just be the lack of trust or mismatch in shared values. Nuance is important here. This is not always the case, but it can be.

5. Distrust in the System or Medical Community as a whole.

Okay, now this is a common issue. No, not all blacks distrust the system but many do, and for good reason. This list would not be complete without mentioning some of the horrors of the past including the Tuskegee Experiment. Essentially blacks were not treated for syphilis by the medical community which sparked outrage and distrust up until our current times. There were also cases of blacks being used as experiments (even dead bodies) or their organs harvested without consent from family members.
There was also “scientific racism” which posited that biological factors create superiority or inferiority between races. Lastly, incompetence and a misunderstanding of the specific challenges faced by blacks to include institutional racism or dominance by one class and race, segregation, trauma, PTSD and an overall disdain toward them contributed significantly to their mental health problems. Some schools of thought even teach that prejudice is completely okay and normal while others outright say it’s okay to be racist (as long as you don’t hurt anyone…).


As a mental health advocate, someone who has been in and out of institutions attended over 20 retreats, trained in Transcendental Meditation ™, Mindfulness practitioner, Healing Visual Artist, veteran, a recovering alcoholic and Complex PTSD survivor, I have learned a lot about mental health over the last 15 years. It looks different for everyone and what may work for one, may not work for another. Find what works for you. It can also affect anyone of any race, culture or religion. Unfortunately, it does have higher rates in some communities and if we understand history well, that is of no surprise. Seek help, there is no shame in it.
Mental Health America: