This has been a year full of struggle, and that’s putting it lightly. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused deaths and financial hardship, the George Floyd killing reignited difficult conversations between Black people and law enforcement, and the presidential election was a drawn out and tense event.
All of that stress adds up, and a Black woman from Detroit created something that might address the collective toll on mental health. The Black Therapist Network, her website, connects Black mental health professionals to clients nationwide. =
Aisha Cunningham, CEO and founder of The Black Therapist Network, has been a therapist for four years. She says the idea for the network came after her struggle to recommend Black therapists to friends and clients.
“Most people of color, people in the African-American community, want a Black therapist. Somebody that they feel like they can relate to, someone that looks like them. And so sometimes it will get frustrating on my channel, like man, I really wish I knew a lot of other Black therapists, either in my area, or maybe one that’s doing teletherapy that I could refer somebody to,” Cunningham said.
Well before 2020, Black Americans were more likely than their white counterparts to report persistent symptoms of hopelessness and sadness, according to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Those looking for help can find therapists who specialize in areas including marriage and relationship counseling, grief or anxiety counseling.
Cunningham says the site also narrows therapists down by gender so everyone can find someone to talk to who they are comfortable with. She says users can also search by which insurance a therapist takes.
Nguvu Tsare, who was born and raised in Detroit, has done both individual therapy and couples therapy. Tsare says it’s hard for him, as a gay Black man, to find a therpist who understands his experience.
“There’s a growing number of Black therapists in general, but Black therapists who come in LGBTQ experience? It can be hard to find them,” Tsare said.
Tsare, who first went to therapy as a kid, says The Black Therapist Network is exactly the thing he’s been looking for, an easier way to connect with a therapist who suits his needs.
Cunningham’s website will have additional benefits for therapists. It will give Black mental health professionals the chance to network with each other, and provide professional development and opportunities to receive grant funding — something Cunningham says is desperately needed in the mental health field.
“Some people are interested in the field and don’t really know how to go about becoming a mental health professional, and so there will be generic information about how you can get started,” she said.
Cunningham hopes the network and the therapists who join it can fight against the negative stigma associated with going to therapy that she says exists in the Black community.
“Unfortunately, vulnerability — or a level of vulnerability — is seen as weakness in our community … I think a lot of the time it stems from feeling like we’re strong enough, so there’s no need to ask for help. And that’s just not true,” she said.
Chase Cantrell, a Detroit-based attorney and the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Building Community Value, agrees with Cunningham’s take. Cantrell, who started going to therapy about a decade ago, says Black people should turn to it more often.
“I think it’s talking, but talking can be helpful. I think people need to see that other Black people who they love and respect are going to therapy,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell has worked to raise awareness of the need for Black men to focus on their mental health. In June, he started Next Steps Together, which brought Black men together to discuss their life experiences.
Brandy Foster, a Detroiter, says she believes the stigma against therapy is dying.
Foster’s mom first put her in therapy as a child. She had anxiety and depression and since then says most of her peers suggest therapy to friends and family. She encouraged her teenage son to begin working with a therapist this year.
The overwhelming amount of video footage of police violence against Black people led Foster to return to therapy.
“I got us both into therapy,” Foster said. “It was just a lot, and I realized that I was hoping, or falling back into really harmful coping techniques.”
Cantrell says that lately he’s noticed more people openly discussing therapy.
“I think something about 2020 has caused people to talk about it more often. I’ve seen it on social media, I’ve heard friends mention it in conversation, more than I ever have before,” he said.
Cunningham says the moment has presented unique challenges to people who normally have social outlets that they can rely on. She encourages people to take care of themselves and find “healthy outlets” or activities that relieve stress.
“Take your mind off of what is inevitable right now, or things that we just don’t have control over,” she said.
Black therapists need help, too, says Cunningham.
“Therapists [need] self care as well, because sometimes in the helping profession, it can be easy to get so lost last in serving others, because that’s what you’re passionate about and you tend to neglect yourself,” she said.
The Black Therapist Network officially launches in January, but is looking for interns to handle social media content, website administration and grant writing. If you’re interested email TheBlackTherapistNetwork@gmail.com. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, don’t wait. Call the Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.