From nearly one million Americans dead due to the pandemic and the stress of weighing the risks of every outing, to the burden of code switching, dealing with microaggressions, and fear of police violence, Black folks’ mental health has taken a hit during the pandemic.
And we’re not just talking about adults. The past two years have been especially hard for kids. Along with the stressors we’ve all experienced, they’ve dealt with the transition to remote learning and then back to in-person classes. Sports and other extracurricular activities haven’t been as regular, and they may have had to be isolated from friends and family to stop the spread of COVID-19.
This year’s Black History Month theme, Black health and wellness, is an opportunity to open much-needed conversations addressing the specific mental health needs of Black children.
It’s a conversation we need to have because Black children grow up to become adults who are suffering. Suicide rates are up and rising, particularly among Black men. Depression rates tripled during the pandemic and symptoms became worse. And, with the heightened need for therapists — particularly culturally informed ones — along with other strains on the mental health profession, it can take a long time to get assistance.
At least Black children who are in an in-person school setting, may have access to help: the school psychologist. But what does a school psychologist do, why does it matter if a school psychologist is Black, and why aren’t there more Black folks in the profession?
Depending on your experience, you might not have even known there was a psychologist at your school, or at your child’s school. School psychologists are experts in learning, behavior, and mental health, and they can provide support to students in these areas: academic and behavioral interventions, mental health resources, and consultation with teachers and families.
What Is Black Psychology?
Like pretty much any area of health, psychology is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Enter Black psychology.
It’s not a new concept. Dr. Joseph White wrote the seminal piece “Toward a Black Psychology” for Ebony magazine in 1970, explaining that mainstream psychology could not adequately be applied to African Americans.
Someone who doesn’t have the same racial or cultural background may misdiagnose, misunderstand, and misassess the challenges facing Black kids, Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Word In Black.
“It’s especially important in schools because of what we know happens too frequently with Black kids in schools,” Cokley says. “We know that Black kids are the victims of a whole host of disproportionate punishment that they experience in those schools, things that other kids, frankly, are able to kind of get away with or not be penalized for.”
The Added Responsibilities of Black School Psychologists
Having someone at school in an authoritative role who you can relate to is vital for Black students.
“For Black kids to have access to Black psychologists typically will mean having someone who will better understand your shared, lived experiences in a way that will make them be more effective as psychologists,” Cokley says.
It’s not news that Black kids are disproportionately suspended or punished with other disciplinary actions. They’re also misdiagnosed with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. This heightens the importance of a Black psychologist in a school setting.
“Having Black psychologists would allow kids to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be better understood with an understanding of their racialized experiences and not be penalized or pathologized for that,” Cokley says.
Though the transition back to in-person learning has been largely seen as a positive, Dr. Celeste Malone, the president-elect of the National Association for School Psychologists, says school was not always a welcoming or friendly environment for kids of color.
“It was a place where they experienced microaggressions, from peers and from teachers,” Malone says.
Malone also highlighted that, on top of feeling the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, Black children are also being more exposed to violence toward Black people during the country’s reckoning with structural and systemic racism. Though they may not have been physically present, being bombarded with the videos, images, and conversations about Black death contributes to feeling unsafe, and returning to a school environment that may not have always supported them isn’t always beneficial.
“The combination of all of those factors makes it quite challenging,” Malone says. “The importance of having Black school psychologists and other mental health professionals is a better understanding of the unique constellation of circumstances that Black students experience.”
Very Few Psychologists Are Black — in Schools or Not
The key problem with this is how few Black psychologists there are in general.
In 2021, only 7.6% of school psychologists nationwide were Black, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These are the most recent numbers from BLS, which only keeps data going back to 2020.
The imbalance exists outside of schools, too. Looking at the industry as a whole, 82% of psychologists are white, and only 5% are Black, according to Census Bureau data from 2018.
Part of the problem, Cokley says, is that Black people haven’t traditionally accessed professional mental health services.
“The idea was that Black people don’t go talking to strangers about their problems,” Cokley says. “We can rely on religiosity and spirituality, talking to pastors and other sort of spiritual leaders, to get us through whatever emotional mental health challenges we were facing.”
“You are seeing a new openness and acceptance that it’s OK to go and get help from a professional when you’re having mental health issues,” Cokley says. “I hope that is a sign that there is more acceptance and that it is becoming more popular amongst people in the Black community.”
Exposure and Barriers to Entry Keep Black People Out of Psychology
But the problem of Black people choosing psychology as a career runs deeper than cultural norms. The lack of a pipeline into the profession starts in early education. In addition to not having equal opportunity to participate in advanced placement or gifted programs, Black students are disproportionately placed in special education. With that, on top of disproportionate disciplinary actions, Black students are often pushed out of academically challenging coursework, or pushed out of school entirely.
School psychology is a graduate-level profession. With Black students being misdiagnosed with learning and behavioral issues, on top of barriers to graduation, it narrows the funnel of people who are attending four-year colleges or universities, leaving even fewer for graduate programs.
However, once Black students have made it to the graduate-level programs, school psychology is amongst the lesser known and lesser funded psychology fields. When Kendell Kelly, now a Ph.D. student at Texas Woman’s University, was applying to the required internships, many needed him to have a car, adding another financial barrier.
Though Howard University has a premier psychology program, where NASP’s Malone is an associate professor, Kelly says other HBCU psychology programs have become “defunct” over the last decade or two.
“The field of school psychology has not been kind to Black people,” Kelly says. “They are very hesitant to fund money and basically funnel students into a field that has historically not been kind to Black people.”
Helping More Black People Become Psychologists
Better funding and earlier exposure to both school psychologists and psychology classes will help get more Black and Brown people in the industry, Kelly says.
“It’s a lack of exposure and not knowing that this is a viable career route,” Malone agrees. But she also touched on something else: the public image. When students are referred to special education, a school psychologist typically does an evaluation. This, Malone says, gives school psychologists the perception of being “gatekeepers” to special education, or contributing to “maladaptive outcomes” for kids. This keeps them from being seen as a helpful role, particularly by Black and Brown kids.
“So as a result, even when you have individuals who may have been exposed to school psychology, they may be actively discouraged from entering into the profession, by other psychologists of color and other disciplines, because of that legacy. So how do we address it?” Malone asks. “I think it’s about looking at the changes that the profession is making now.”
In 2017, NASP set social justice as one of its strategic goals, aiming to integrate social justice practices into everything and looking at the role school psychologists had in contributing to disparities in order to undo that harm from individual practices.
“As we continue to do that work and more people learn about school psychology, especially its commitment and growing commitment to social justice,” Malone says, “I think that will attract more Black individuals to the profession because they see it as a potential route for them to make positive changes in school communities.”