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BIPOC in mental health services: a missing piece in Bellingham

The need for BIPOC within mental health services is greater now more than ever! With a diverse population in these fields, Western students can prosper tremendously, though not having these resources for our students can lead to grave consequences

“Cosmic Universe†is an original piece by Western fourth-year Katana Sol. The increased need for mental health services in the past year has exposed a severe lack of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] representation in Bellingham mental health services. // Photo courtesy of Katana Sol.

By Dia Wondimu

When Maya Smiley began looking for a therapist, there were a lot of factors to finding the right person: specialty, experience and, because Smiley is Black, race. These all contributed to her careful consideration.

Washington state is a hard place to find a counselor who understands the experience of being Black, Indigenous or a person of color. Western only has four counselors who identify as BIPOC, and, according to Dr. Sisena Ledbetter, there are no Black counselors in the city of Bellingham. That creates a serious problem and the consequences can prove destructive according to counselors, patients and researchers. 

“No matter how much experience white counselors/therapists have with ‘ethnic students,’ it’s not the same speaking with them,” said Smiley, a second-year student at Western. “Oftentimes white therapists might not connect any feelings POC clients will share with them [about] racial issues and that is a huge problem.”

Reaching out for help isn’t easy, students say, nor is actually going to get help, so having a variety of resources that can support students is essential for any institution.

“Talking to a counselor involves going DEEP, this means going BEYOND ‘surface-level conversation,’” said Ebon Oluchi, a second-year student at Western who identifies as Black & Indigenous. Oluchi also noted that those capitalized words really demanded that emphasis in an email. “Black students, living in a world of heightened violence, tokenization and discrimination need a safe space. It is essential and, oh so appropriately complementary, in the Black student experience, that Black counselors/therapists are present and accessible.”

Student support systems are a heavy area of investment for many universities. 

“These counselors can really add to the journey of Black students by authentically being by their side all the way up until graduation,”Oluchi said. “Confiding in someone isn't easy. In the Black community, even amongst our own sometimes, it still isn't easy.”

Having diverse mental health resources is essential to ensuring students have support in difficult times. Ledbetter is the executive director for Counseling, Health, and Wellness at WWU, and acknowledges the weight of last year.

Ledbetter said one of the first things she did was request funding for additional therapists to be hired, though she soon realized that money wasn’t the leading challenge in finding these resources. 

“[The challenge] was finding therapists of color in the Bellingham area that could provide the services to our students, so there are literally zero Black therapists in Bellingham.” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter said she believes in the importance of compassion and the need for understanding with Western’s BIPOC students.

“I think every staff member should educate themselves on how they can best understand a little bit more about the Black experience and the BIPOC experience so that they know the kinds of things the students that are sitting in front of them are dealing with and have been dealing with,” she said. 

Oluchi said there are significant consequences that come with not having race-conscious resources accessible to students

“We know that mental health and death, in various forms, are connected. We need to avoid these fatal outcomes at Western for Black students,” Oluchi said.

Ledbetter said this is particularly important when working with young people.

“It's because we have to show up with this universal imposter syndrome that says we are OK even when we're not,” said Ledbetter, who identifies as Black and Jamaican-American. “Even though they talk about ‘Black doesn't crack,’ on the inside, we're all broken up. It is hard, and it is emotionally traumatic to have to do that. You should not have to do that.”

Ledbetter summarized the consequences of suppressing Black pain with a quote from the author Zora Neale Hurston: “If you're silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

The trauma can play out in multiple ways, including “therapists dismissing POC feelings, refusing to have conversations of race, or not even admitting that they play a factor in the mental health of POC students, especially at a PWI [predominantly white institution],” Smiley said. 

Ledbetter also noted that alternative methods can still provide support to students.

“We just hired a Black yogi to do yoga, it's called ‘Glow and Flow Yoga,’” Ledbetter said. “You can heal through these non-traditional modalities and don't just have to sit across the table from someone in a very sort of stoic Eurocentric model of doing therapy. There are other ways to heal.”

The need for access to BIPOC-led counseling and therapy extends beyond Western and Washington state.

“I think we're looking at an overall distrust of the American healthcare system,” said Rev. Dr. Fatimah Salleh, who identifies as Black, Puerto Rican and Malaysian. She is the founder of A Certain Work, an organization dedicated to educating on issues of faith, diversity, equity and inclusion. “The lack of having BIPOC doctors and therapists, including psychiatrists, only deepens if it continues to exacerbate what's already there, the lack of trust of not even seeing people who look like you.”

“Having those spaces where you can gather, be truly yourself, not having to think of being in a white-dominant space … the spaces that allow for deep inhale and exhale, that allows for trust can hold and affirm you both in your giftedness and power and hold you in what it is to move to the world in a racialized body.”

Ledbetter also believes in the importance of shared spaces and how they provide healing. 

“You don't have to go through the emotional trauma of explaining how it feels to walk around in that skin, that is healing,” she said. “I understand what it feels like to walk around in that skin, and that is healing across from someone who doesn't have to explain it.”

“This is tough on communities of color. Connection is a hallmark of our existence. Connection is how we thrive, connection is how we live, connection is how we breathe,” she said. 

Salleh works to educate people on the beauty that can come from having comfortable spaces to be open and honest.

“Give us our sacred space,” she said. “It's already an emotional labor to be in this environment during this time … Allow Black people to have the spaces they need; to come together, to love on each other, support each other, see each other and hold one another [during] what is a really devastating time in this country. Our healing matters, and our care matters. This country has not been careful with Black people, and with BIPOC as a whole, they have not been careful.” 

Oluchi noted that BIPOC counselors and mental health staff will need support too.

“Black students have the Black counselors as a level of protection, but who protects the Black counselors?” Oluchi said. 

Ledbetter also suggested ways that staff can heal, focusing on the importance of little moments.

“Find ways to foster spontaneity, you know, checking in with family, staying connected in ways instead of Zoom, maybe pick up the phone and have a phone conversation and give yourself a break from the screen time,” she said. “There are all kinds of ways that I think our faculty and staff can take care of each other.”

Dia Wondimu is a former reporter for the Front.

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