Celebrating Black Therapists

How an Online Community Broke the Networking Mold

Chris Lyford

Deran Young knows it’s not easy being first. It’s not easy being the first person in your family to graduate from college. Or the first in your family to own a home. It’s especially difficult being the first in your family to climb out of crushing poverty in 1970s Wichita Falls, Texas, where it was an unspoken rule for most black families like hers to keep your head down.

In the projects, your problems were your own, Young remembers, even if it meant walking yourself to preschool because your mother couldn’t stand up after an especially intense night of smoking crack cocaine. But with many neighbors in the same boat, your problems were, in a way, everyone else’s, too. And as long as there was food on the table and a roof over your head, could you really complain? At age 5, on mornings when Young made a wrong turn and got lost on her way to kindergarten, she’d repeat the same mantra in her head: just keep going. Someday, you’ll figure it out.

These days, Young is helping others find their firsts, too. Two years ago, she founded Black Therapists Rock, an online community of black therapists that currently has more than 22,000 members. Mostly using Facebook, the organization functions primarily to help clinicians reach places where talk of therapy is virtually nonexistent—places like Young’s hometown. But the group serves another important purpose: it’s a resource for therapists to network, get advice about challenging cases, find referrals, and meet potential mentors, especially if they’re struggling to land their first real clinical job or pass a licensure exam.

It’s also a place where many black therapists finally discover—often for the first time in a decades-long career—a sense of camaraderie with other professionals like them. In online chats, they can often relate to each other’s upbringings, lingering traumas, and common experiences, such as being the only therapist of color in a practice, or finding the techniques they learned in grad school better suited to white clients than African Americans like themselves. For Young, who spent seven years doing military mental health care alongside mostly white colleagues, the feeling of not belonging was constant. “I felt like such an outlier, an outsider,” she says. “I was losing my sense of purpose, and I needed inspiration.” In characteristic fashion, Young took the initiative to do something about it.

To be sure, numerous professional organizations offer networking opportunities for black therapists, the most prominent of which are the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPSI) and the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), both formed during the height of the civil rights movement, and each with tens of thousands of members. But while these organizations serve a valuable purpose, Young says, they’re professional organizations first and foremost, lacking a needed human element or a real spirit of community. And while each organization offers an annual conference, it’s tough to keep a sense of collegiality and mission alive once the music dies and everyone returns to the professional isolation of their practice back home.

This is where Black Therapists Rock is shaking things up, using a variety of online tools like instant messaging, blogs, live videos, and Facebook groups so members who live near one another can find ways to meet in person. For her part, Young makes a regular habit of communicating through Facebook videos with the community she’s created, sharing her own story—including recent struggles like her divorce, single parenting, and relationship issues—and encouraging others to do the same.

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“At first, I felt like I had to keep my personal experiences a secret,” Young explains, “But once I started revealing them, people started saying, ‘Wow, you’re just like me!’ I’m making mental health an everyday thing, and it’s brought me far more respect, more trust, and more clients than any marketing strategy ever could.” Within one year of the start of Black Therapists Rock, more than 15,000 people joined the group’s Facebook page. Currently, the organization has over 20,000 Facebook members, overtaking its more senior ABPSI and NABSW counterparts.

If Black Therapists Rock’s success can be attributed to anything, it’s that therapists are hungry for community. And no wonder. It’s no mystery that in the field of mental health care, work schedules are often erratic, the work itself emotionally demanding, and most therapists feel cut off from colleagues. According to the APA, up to 60 percent of mental health practitioners regularly experience signs of burnout.

Coming Home

In August, Deran Young’s Black Therapists Rock community held its second annual conference. As social worker Tamala Floyd walked to and from her workshops, an almost indescribable feeling began to sweep over her. Left and right, she watched as other black conferencegoers took new friends by the wrist and led them to other attendees. “You’ve got to meet this person!” they exclaimed. “You two are doing the same work!”

As she sat in workshops with names like “The Heart and Soul of a Black Man,” she saw tears well up in the eyes of those around her. And when she got behind a podium to present her own workshop on the challenges of black mother–daughter relationships and saw heads nod in affirmation as she spoke, she knew she’d found a family unlike any other. “Making these connections is invaluable for me personally and for my practice,” she says.

Of course, no matter what their specialty area or type of practice, therapists are always on the lookout for the next big clinical advance—a new approach, or tool, or research finding that will take their outcomes to a new level. But perhaps that next big thing on the therapeutic horizon will be less about what they offer their clients in the consulting room and more about what they can offer each other outside it.

Maybe, in some future therapy world, connecting deeply and frequently, face to face or even screen to screen, will be a continuing education requirement. Maybe specific training in how to build your own community support will become a mandatory part of every program. Maybe burgeoning clinicians won’t be so often left to figure it out on their own before it’s too late. In a society where loneliness seems to be a growing problem for everyone, maybe this could be the field’s most transformative development yet.

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Chris Lyford is the assistant editor at Psychotherapy Networker. Rich Simon, PhD, is the editor.

This blog is excerpted from "Creating a Web of Connection," by Chris Lyford. The full version is available in the January/February 2019 issue, Can't See the Forest? Maybe It's Time to Get Out of the Office.

PHOTO © LEONORA HAMILL

Topic: Professional Development

Tags: African American | burnout | communities | communities of practice | community | connection | connectivity | Facebook | loneliness | online | Personal & Professional Development | Professional Development | Social networks

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