By: Antwan McKenzie-Plez, M.A., Reg. Mental Health Counselor Intern
A few times thus far in my clinical practice, I have had an experience that can’t be easily summed up. It is an experience that is part intuitive, part spiritual, and altogether a feeling which words fail to explain. This feeling, which happens somewhere between the gut and the literal heart, is felt mutually and simultaneously between client and clinician.
In that very first session with a Black LGBTQ+ identified youth, a somewhat magical connection occurs when the young person realizes that the mental health professional they will be working with is also young, black,queer, and a “homeboy/girl/person” (born and raised in a neighborhood just like theirs). It is often in that moment that any reluctance, hesitation,or fear about what this process will look like, visibly and palpably fades away and creates space for their healing work to begin.
I can recall an intake session with a young African American gay male who had been quite difficult to meet with. It was apparent that, for some reason, he was resistant to receiving services despite an obvious need for them. After finally pinning him down for an in-home intake session, I found myself sitting across from a terrified boy. I would learn later in the two-hour session that he’d had many negative experiences in receiving mental health services in the past and was doubtful he would find a therapist he could connect with.
Realizing the high level of anxiety he was feeling, I quickly made the decision to self-disclose my identity as a fellow gay Black man. Five minutes later, we were no longer sitting across from one another. We sat next to each other on his couch and chatted like two old friends. In that session, the client reported that he had been more open and honest about his struggles during those two hours than he had been in the many years of therapy that preceded this moment.
What happened in this story is a real-life example of how representation matters in mental health and in social services as a whole.
It is a widely accepted fact that the most important determinant to an individual’s success in mental health treatment is the therapeutic relationship. Beyond any particular intervention or modality, what often makes the difference in life-saving interventions is how well a client likes and trusts their clinician.Though this can certainly be achieved in working with a cisgender, heterosexual, non-POC therapist, I believe there is a strong likelihood that those barriers come down at a much faster rate when the Black queer youth sees him/ her/ their self represented in their clinician.
Clients, when seeing themselves reflected in their clinician, are put at ease knowing that certain things don’t have to be explained in the same way that they might have to be with someone who has not had that shared life experience. Though we have come a very long way in the arena of cultural competence, no one understands the highly unique experience of being Black and queer in the South, like a person who is Black and queer in the South.
With all of the research and information that is out, I find that there is no need to explore in this brief piece all of the reasons why Black LGBTQ+ youth are in dire need of mental health services. It is pretty evident that these youth suffer from mental health challenges at an alarmingly higher rate than their non-black counterparts as well as their cisgender and heterosexual
However, it is worth mentioning a very recent study conducted by the Trevor Project, called the National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.One of the most alarming findings in this study, which surveyed more than 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth, is that Black LGBTQ youth are less likely to receive mental health care than the general LGBTQ youth population, despite reporting similar (often higher) rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. At a time when suicide attempt rates are at an all-time high among black youth, this finding is more than concerning- our babies are in crisis and are largely suffering in silence.
While the study doesn’t provide direct reasons for such a disparity, researchers connected with the study suggest likely causes include inadequate access to care, lack of cultural competency of providers, and (you guessed it) lack of representation in the field.
With that being said, my point can be summed up this way:1. Local agencies must be intentional about hiring mental health professionals who can serve as representation for our Black queer youth; 2. Mental health services should be recommended, tailored to specific needs of this population, and made available for any and all Black youth in our community who identifies as LGBTQ+; and 3. Parents and caregivers of Black children who identify as LGBTQ+ should actively seek out Black, openly LGBTQ+ clinicians for their child in order to quickly remove known barriers to the healing process.
Antwan McKenzie-Plez, “The Expectation Grief Specialist” is a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern, Certified Supported Living & Supported Employment Coach with a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a Graduate Certification in Substance Abuse Counseling.