Guest Commentary: Representation matters — Culturally affirming mental health care for Black communities

Published 5:21 pm Friday, February 2, 2024

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From the National Alliance on Mental Illness

The transformative potential of culturally specific therapy in Minnesota

The importance of culturally specific mental health professionals cannot be overstated when we consider the structural inequities that disproportionately affect Black communities. People of color have reported difficulty finding mental health professionals from their community, as nearly ninety percent of the current mental health professionals are white in Minnesota. This lack of diversity in our workforce often translates into not as beneficial mental health experiences for members of Black communities who have encountered practices that are not culturally informed or responsive when attempting to find healing.

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“I didn’t realize how challenging it was for me until I had a Black therapist,” explained April Bryant, a Black mother who brings a social work background and has engaged in therapy for a long time and is a caregiver for several loved ones living with a mental illness. Having a Black therapist made therapy more constructive for her by sharing mirrored experiences. Her new therapist’s understanding and sensitivity accelerated her healing. “Something that happened in the past in about three of our sessions, I was able to get done in one session.” Besides, she stresses the importance of representation in mental health professionals. “You are going through it, and it is nice to sit with somebody who looks like you.”

Culturally specific therapists offer a variety of modalities and may be more likely to provide a decolonized approach to wellness and support. Terrence Thigpen, LSW, a Black mental health professional at Reviving Roots Therapy & Wellness, shed light and language on the significance of culturally affirming practices and approaches in mental health. He encourages individuals to approach the therapeutic process like any other meaningful relationship. As an analogy to depict this relationship, Thigpen “sits in the passenger seat while they are navigating their car of life. If they want to take me down a certain road, I allow them to control their vehicle and, as a passenger, notice things we might observe throughout the journey.”

Thigpen acknowledges and affirms that clients are the experts of their own experiences and empowers them to develop coping skills tailored to their unique circumstances, which Bryant describes as “Reality versus proposed treatment plan,” challenging societal norms. In addition, Bryant shares the importance of seeing “professionals of color that I can refer youth and family members to. They may not seek them out on their own, but they’ll take my word for it.” As someone who has benefitted from therapy and has described it as “life-changing,” Bryant encourages loved ones to seek mental health services.

In the last several years, positive changes have been made at the legislature. It includes over $3 million a year for the Cultural Ethnic Minority Infrastructure Grant program (CEMIG) that supports culturally specific mental health organizations, funding for BIPOC mental health professionals to become supervisors, funding for loan forgiveness for all mental health professionals working in shortage areas, continuing education requirements to become culturally informed and responsive, creation of a Culturally Informed Culturally Responsive Mental Health Task Force to develop recommendations on changes to our system, and ensuring all the licensing boards have diverse membership. Yet, “We need to continue to advocate for policies to create a culturally diverse workforce to meet the needs of all Minnesotans,” explained Sue Abderholden, Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “While we have made progress, there is more to do.”

Like anybody else, when a person from a Black community is experiencing challenges with their mental health, they need to receive quality care as soon as the symptoms are recognized. It is also equally crucial that culturally informed and responsive professionals provide that care. Ideally, Black mental health professionals should lead those efforts. However, due to the chronic lack of diversity in our workforce, advocates for mental health agree that there aren’t enough.

This February, NAMI Minnesota marks Black History Month by reflecting on Black history, sharing mental health information and resources, including BIPOC-focused support groups, and elevating voices from Black communities to enable decision-makers to reform current policies to focus more on equity. NAMI Minnesota also offers BIPOC-focused classes and has a list of culturally informed and responsive mental health providers in Minnesota. To learn more, go to

NAMI Minnesota is a non-profit organization working to improve the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses and their families through its education, support, and advocacy programs.