The unspoken frustrations of mental health treatment are endless, but for underrepresented groups, it can be a death sentence. Take the transgender community for example. The number of transgender individuals who choose not to seek mental health treatment is currently unknown, yet the barriers they face are endless and the suicide attempt rate for trans individuals hovers at 40% . While black and white adults experience similar rates of mental illnesses, black adults are less likely to seek care. According to NAMI, reasons range from misdiagnosis to provider bias. Despite initiatives for cultural competence training in clinics, black individuals disproportionately suffer from lack of care. Lack of care, combined with the lack of diversity in the mental health field, results in a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, with marginalized communities suffering from the consequences.
After being behind the therapist’s desk for years, Quinn Gee went for the ultimate option: creating her own practice. The 29-year-old currently resides in Memphis, Tennessee where Magnolia Mental Health operates. Named for Mississippi’s state flower, the organization offers mental health services for marginalized communities. The practice offers both individual and group therapy and for low-income patients, offers services on a donation-basis. Recently, the organization relocated to Washington D.C.
I learned of Quinn’s organization last summer. Flashback to July 2016 after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The footage of Sterling’s son crying for his father was retweeted thousands of time as communities, yet once again, recognized the violence perpetuated by the state on a daily basis. In the middle of a Twitter timeline consisting of frustrating statistics, the New York Black Lives Matter chapter retweeted a message: “In this time of great mental distress, MHPs and Black Therapists are sorely needed. I am in Open Path, NQTTCN, ACA.”
A few clicks landed me in the Magnolia Mental Health website, and I discovered a mission that most mental health organizations openly avoided: the mental well-being of underrepresented groups.
I describe it as the “elephant in the room” when I speak with Quinn. Even in so-called liberal California, race continues to be an avoided topic, especially with regards to mental health and criminal justice. While the prison population has been decreasing, blacks and Latinos are disproportionately targeted for substance abuse and incarcerated, not to mention they are also more likely to experience homelessness.
“There’s a common assumption that racism is only in the South,” says Quinn when I bring this up, “But racial microaggressions are more common in the West and East coasts. Such as [strangers telling me] ‘let me touch your hair’. People such as Bill Maher are liberal only when they serve your purpose.”
With politicians and political parties denying the existence of systemic racism, I was reminded of another phenomenon: racial trauma. While this term currently is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is the result of racial disparities, overexposure to racial trauma, and gaslighting by institutions, which continue to invalidate years of oppression that black communities continue to experience. Or, as Quinn phrases it, “PTSD for people of color.”
“People generally accept PTSD as a result of war,” says Quinn. “But with people of color, you’re at war constantly, not just with America but with the media.”
With information at the tip of everyone’s fingers, traumatic videos spread like wildfire. Live footage of black men being shot by the police have flooded Facebook feeds. But while this simple accessibility of videos is new, nothing has majorly changed for underrepresented groups.
“Police brutality didn’t stop in the 1800s and the Klan hasn’t dissolved,” Quinn mentions, “Minorities experience violence several times, and it’s often normalized.”
So how does the media play into mental health? “Black people don’t recognize race-based trauma is a thing,” says Quinn when I mention this, “When the media chooses to stereotype black people, characterize them as aggressive, you get used to all of it. You internalize it.” And internalization projects itself in other ways:
“I use the water balloon analogy. The balloon is your life and the water is trauma you’ve experienced. If you have holes in the balloon while filling it up with water, it doesn’t pop. These holes include therapy and self-care.”
But without the holes? The balloon pops, leaving individuals vulnerable, more prone to self-blame, and mentally unhealthy.
One of Quinn’s strategies was to offer free care after traumatic events. The day after the November 9 election, a surge in phone calls slammed the National Suicide Hotline. Quinn offered hours of free therapy. Services to trans individuals were free since day one, but after the election, they expanded to include Muslims. Earlier in the year, Quinn provided seventy-two hours of free therapy for the LGBTQ community after the shooting in Orlando.
The mental health community not only suffers from a lack of diversity but also lacks discussion regarding cultural and societal factors that impact mental health. When I asked Quinn about this, she mentioned a personal experience a few years ago:
“I was presenting in a room with fifty psychotherapists in the room. I was the only person of color in the room, and it was overwhelming. Afterwards I was confronted by female therapists who said, ‘I’m a woman, I know what it feels like to be marginalized.’ There’s a lack of understanding surrounding [power]. Race isn’t something you can hide, it’s a visible identity.”
Recently the #BlackWomenatWork hashtag shed some light upon the multiple inappropriate comments and actions black women deal with on a daily basis. I ask Quinn about her work experiences, and she lists a range of incidences that have me choking on my coffee: “Several clients have asked me if I work here”, “People have asked if I’m in cosmetology school because of my nails”, “Clients didn’t believe me when I told them I have a Master’s in Counseling”.
Most clinics Quinn encountered were not keen on increasing diversity. But after talking with friends and coming together, Quinn’s previous organization, the Healing Hearts Counseling Center, was born. Its initial staff count? Four women of color. “It was one of the best feelings,” says Quinn, “Sitting in a room with four black women, it was so empowering. One time some of our followers from Twitter bought us lunch. Small things like hearing ‘Your tweets helped me get through the day’ are so validating.”
From day one, Magnolia Mental Health was built on diversity. Currently, all the staffers are minorities. This is particularly important to Quinn. “I want to be able to help people who don’t always receive help,” she says, “Minorities in the field need to have spaces for graduates and be willing to supervise them.” One of Quinn’s mentees created the Twitter hashtag #BlackMentalHealthMatters, which still remains active today.
Are local, state, and federal governments working to support mental health? Perhaps for some. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act introduced by Representative Murphy (D–PA) last year received bipartisan support. But as Quinn points out, legislation, both local and federal, is often colorblind and does not affect individuals who need it the most. The political landscape lacks diversity, along with the mental health care industry. The result? Individuals remain untreated and develop chronic mental conditions.
Not many twenty-somethings manage to create an organization while working a full-time weekday job, a weekend job, and on a certification to boot; I express this to Quinn, as well as thanking her for her work. As our call concludes, I blurt out: “How do you take care of yourself?” All the sorrowful narratives, the unpaid labor, and the microaggressions dealt with on a daily basis, just…how?
Her gaze was thoughtful: “I’m still working on it myself. I listen to podcasts, watch bad political TV shows, it’s my way of self-care.” For people working in the mental health field, Quinn also has a word of advice: “Have boundaries around work. Don’t let yourself be overloaded by everyone’s trauma. People assume I don’t need trigger warnings, and I’m approached by friends and random people when they need to talk to someone about traumatic events.”
Later I remember a scene from the hit ABC TV series Scandal. In a few sentences, Kerry Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, described what it is to be a black person in America today:
“[When I was kidnapped], I thought I was a goner. I lived in complete and total fear….Imagine feeling like that every single day of your life.”
This post was written by Deepika Dilip. Please send any questions or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.