Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Nearly four years after she began taking part in therapy sessions of her own, Yasmine Jameelah, the 27-year-old founder and CEO of the “Transparent and Black” collective, is busier than ever.
She describes her organization as a wellness brand focused on nurturing the physical and mental health of Black people. And in recent weeks, she’s been working overtime to keep the collective’s signature group therapy sessions and other free mental health resources running remotely at such a tumultuous time for Black America.
Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, Jameelah said she’s seen a notable uptick in her predominantly Black followers asking about therapy and participating in remote events. But even with nearly 43,000 followers on Instagram, Jameelah knows she’s fighting an uphill battle.
“I think wellness for Black people is multifaceted,” she told VICE News. “It’s so much more than green juice and yoga and meditation. It’s about healing from intergenerational trauma. It’s accountability and setting boundaries. It’s figuring out a life for yourself that you don’t need a break from.”
While dealing with historical traumas like slavery and Jim Crow — and even more recent examples like the drug epidemic of the late 1980s and '90s and police brutality — Black Americans have repeatedly pushed off addressing mental health. The community was too preoccupied marching for equal rights and staving off the effects of systemic racism to make time for these issues the same way other communities have.
Jameelah’s not alone in her fight to lift that harmful and deeply entrenched stigma. Several Black therapists and mental health organizations told VICE News they've seen an uptick in Black people reaching out for mental health resources in the last several weeks. But undoing that stigma means having to juggle bringing awareness to mental health care while also pioneering new ways to address the issue head-on.
As one of the leading therapists in the U.S. specializing in racial trauma, Ashley McGirt has also seen a recent increase in clients. She also said corporations, like Amazon and Lockheed Martin, have contacted her in hopes of bringing her in to lead race-based workplace training and consulting.
“When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, no one ever sat down with freed slaves to help them process the trauma of having their families split apart or being forced to watch their brothers and sisters get lynched,” said McGirt, who’s based in Seattle. “This has occurred since before I was alive. Before my grandmother, my great grandmother, going all the way back to the beginning of American history.”
The systemic racism impacting communities of color is known to exacerbate the effects of mental illness. As of 2017, African Americans were 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress than their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Minority Health.
“It’s about healing from intergenerational trauma. It’s accountability and setting boundaries. It’s figuring out a life for yourself that you don’t need a break from.”
But the numbers don’t seem to reflect that experience. As of 2016, only 16.2% of Black Americans reported having a mental illness, compared to 20.4% of their white Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Black therapists throughout history have tried to bring attention to the concept of racial trauma, according to McGirt. But only now, decades after the fact in some cases, has the mental health community as a whole begun to acknowledge some of the universal experiences that exist for Black Americans.
How these traumas are passed down through generations of Black families — and the ignorance surrounding the existence of them in the first place — is the direct result of discrimination in the field of psychology, according to McGirt.
“If you look at the history of psychiatry and mental health, it's not something that was created with people of color in mind,” she said. “Our field’s founding fathers, your Sigmund Freuds and your John Watsons, all treated white people. Important Black psychologists — like Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who did the doll studies; or Dr. Joy DeGruy, who coined the name post-traumatic slave syndrome; or Dr. Beverly Tatum, who wrote ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together’ — aren’t household names. And that’s because that's not what's taught in our schools. And they should be.”
For a community that’s disproportionately affected by poverty and the rising costs of healthcare in general, the cost of getting therapy on a regular basis also factors in. Mental health treatment has always seemed just out of reach for many Black Americans who need it most.
“Access is an issue, and cost,” McGirt said. “Not a lot of people have insurance that covers it or can afford private pay costs.”
Christopher Scott, a Portland-based social worker known for his podcast series “The Hip-Hop Social Worker,” told VICE News that the stigma of mental health treatment within the Black community also stems from a lack of trust in the system.
“There’s a feeling [among Black people] that if you share your problems, someone might come and capitalize on that,’” he said.
He explained that the lack of Black therapists is a big reason for the distrust — and why he thinks it’s so important to provide a familiar, more relatable environment for his clients and listeners.
“I consider myself to be from the hip-hop culture,” said Scott, who’s had more people ask about connecting to resources on the behalf of friends and family than ever before. “How I talk to my friends is how I talk to my clients. I still wear Jordans to work. I’m young enough to understand the people I work with. I know who Lil Baby is and who a lot of the other upcoming artists are. I’m able to put a spin on how I work with my clients.”
Scott’s unique approach to helping Black people with their own mental health is becoming more common as more experts of color enter the field.
In 2018, Elisa Shankle co-founded HealHaus, a space in Brooklyn dedicated entirely to mental healing for people of color, with her partner Darian Hall. While the space itself has been closed since March due to COVID-19, Shankle said as many as 600 people at a time have shown up to their digital events and wellness classes.
“Within our culture, we are resilient people,” Shankle said. “And in order to be resilient, there's always this pressure to perform, to not show weakness or vulnerability. We’ve been conditioned to think this is just how we exist because it's not like the treatment that could improve our mental, physical, spiritual health is marketed toward us. It never has been.”
By creating a space like HealHaus where Black people can gather and talk to other Black people about mental health resources and their experiences, Shankle believes she’s one step closer to getting rid of the stigma around mental health care.
“We wanted to build a community around wellness and making people feel comfortable,” she said. “It's allowing them to come as they are, no judgment. We're not telling you to exist in a certain way when you come. We also don't have a traditional wellness model that sometimes feels intimidating. For us, the future of healthcare is in non-clinical environments.”
“Mental health care is something that has to be integrated into your day to day, just like brushing your teeth,” Shankle added. “Our focus becomes how can we best do that in a way that’s attractive to [Black] folks and makes it easy to wrap their head around.”
While Black people in the wellness and mental health field are doing their best to tear down stigma, they also know that these conversations have become more normalized, thanks to popular Black culture.
“I think we're in a generation now where Black people are just fed up,” Shankle said. “There’s been a slow unwinding of the conditioning that we've received in mainstream culture. You see the Diddys, you see the Jay Zs are now talking about therapy in their music. You hear Kanye talking about having bipolar disorder. Those things are starting to trickle down.”
For people like Jameelah, her own experience with therapy changing her life is why she became such an advocate for effective mental health treatment. She launched her organization “Transparent Black Girl” in 2018, and then a year later, to help bring attention to the same issues that exist among Black men, she launched “Transparent Black Guy.”
“I had seen a resurgence of women’s empowerment events and mixers and brunches,” Jameelah said. “And that was wonderful. But it seemed like no one was having events talking about healing from trauma. So it was just important for me to make sure Transparent Black Girl was a space where we knew we could be vulnerable and express wellness in our own way.”
VICE Media Group is celebrating Juneteenth, the day all enslaved Black Americans were emancipated in the U.S., by highlighting stories important to the diaspora across VICE, i-D, Garage, and Refinery 29. Tune in to VICE TV for a full day of television honoring Black voices.
Cover: Founder and CEO of the “Transparent and Black” collective, Yasmine Jameelah (top left); HealHaus co-founder Elisa Shankle (top right); Christopher Scott, known for his podcast, “The Hip-Hop Social Worker” (bottom left); and Seattle-based racial trauma therapist Ashley McGirt (bottom right). (All photos courtesy of sources)