The last 12 months have been a hard time to be a mental health professional, but for Black and brown therapists and psychologists, it has been particularly difficult. “People would say, ‘Three people died at my work today,’ or ‘Hey, my mom just passed,’’' remembers therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, co-owner of BFF Therapy. “Everyone was really stressed, and I began feeling everyone’s stress.
“A few weeks in, my mom tested positive for COVID. She recovered, but it was scary,” she says. "Then George Floyd gets murdered… I came out of my office multiple days and felt like, fuck the world.”
Between the beginning of the pandemic and fall 2020, 74% of psychologists who work with patients for anxiety disorders saw an uptick in demand for treatment, according to a survey from the American Psychological Association. Teletherapy platform Talkspace reported a 65% jump in clients between mid-February and May of last year, mostly due to pandemic-related anxiety, a spokesperson told Refinery29.
The isolation caused by lockdowns, the fear of getting sick, the grief that came with losing loved ones or jobs all contributed to the ongoing mental health crisis. The burden placed on Black Americans was exceptionally high. The virus infected and killed Black Americans at disproportionate rates. George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s killings at the hands of police sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. Soon after the news of their deaths began getting widespread attention, reported symptoms of depression and anxiety rose more among Black Americans than any other group, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey.
“Because I’m a Black female therapist, in 2020, there was a lot of outreach from people in the Black community needing support,” Fanny Tristan, a clinical social worker, tells Refinery29. “Many of us were going through the same crises together.”
On the one hand, the shared experiences fostered empathy. But it could also be difficult to balance supporting clients with taking care of themselves. “When George Floyd died, I went on Instagram and asked everyone: ‘How are you?’" says psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD. "People need to hear that, but are often afraid of the question — they’re afraid of falling apart when asked. But I thought, I want someone to ask me how I’m doing right now.”
Here, five Black mental health professionals share the self-care practices and advice they found themselves leaning on to get through the last year — and open up about their hopes for 2021.
Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD
Psychologist and founder of the mental health nonprofit, the AAKOMA Project
Psychologist and founder of the mental health nonprofit, the AAKOMA Project
How I took care of myself in 2020: “Living through 2020 has made me more grateful. There are so many small things I’m working not to take for granted. I’m thankful to have technology and social media as a way to connect with others.”
The advice I found myself repeating last year: “I’ve been working hard to remind people to not be hard on themselves. Breathe. Drop your shoulders. Don’t isolate yourself, and don’t be too proud to ask for help. I’m always telling people: ‘You’re valuable because you exist.’ I want to celebrate the fact that you’re here."
My hope for 2021: “2020 was the first time in my life that I could honestly say that people came around to some tiny level of greater acknowledgement of the unique stressors of Black people. Watching white people in the streets with signs and protesting with people of color this year? Wow. That was powerful. I will say, over the past [few] months, I started to see the conversation drift a little bit to how it was before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. However, I’m optimistic — even though there’s a tiny piece of me that worries we’re going to backslide.”
How I took care of myself in 2020: "I was trying to stay off social media. I didn’t want to turn away from the news, but I was hearing so much about the trauma happening in the world from my clients themselves every day — I didn’t need to see it repeated in one post after another. I also consult with other therapists to talk about cases, and those meetings were so important. I had to prioritize taking walks in the morning, and taking naps if I could. I’d take some of my calls outside in the garden. I’d meditate, use an essential oil diffuser. I’d journal every morning.”
"Sometimes, though, [early last summer] I wanted to scream into nature. It was the combination of: I’m super pregnant, and I have another small person running around so I’m actively parenting — personally, I have a Black son and am mixed race — while working... But I never got to the point of burnout, because I have a wonderful partner and group of friends as a support system."
The advice I found myself repeating last year: “My own activism overlaps with my work with clients in a big way. During the election, I told my clients to allow themselves to have feelings but also to be an activist. I’d ask them to focus on what was within their control, meaning texting friends about voting, applying to be a poll worker, putting signs in the yard.”
My hope for 2021: “The recent domestic terrorism on the Capitol is again forcing folks to confront the idea of white privilege. Because of this, more couples who may not agree on politics and racism are having much deeper talks. It’s been wonderful to facilitate hard conversations, because that’s how change begins... Anti-racism work needs to start as a personal journey for every single one of us — but what really gets that journey started can be a comment from or a conversation with someone whose opinion you trust and value.”
How I took care of myself in 2020: “I did this in two big ways. One was giving myself permission to rest, and the second was creating stricter boundaries for myself. I have a relaxation zone in my home, and I have a specific spot where I do my sessions. This has been helpful since March, [when] I made the pivot to telehealth.”
The advice I found myself repeating last year: "There is a double consciousness that occurs when you’re living in a marginalized body. You walk around and it’s not safe. You’re very on guard, but at the same time you still have to do your daily tasks. We pull upon some strength, whether that comes from being spiritual or leaning on your community. A week after the insurrection, for instance, my clients were back to focusing on their goals. Somehow you’re able to recalibrate. [So] I’ve talked to my clients a lot about the idea of making themselves a priority. It’s okay to say, ‘I need to go take a 30 minute bath or take a walk.’ We’ve all been operating in such an emergent state, and you need to pull back and say, ‘I need to fulfill my basic needs.’"
My hope for 2021: “In the coming year, I hope that everybody gets to have some connection with a mental health professional. It doesn't have to mean paying for therapy. It could mean attending a Zoom workshop, reading a book, or listening to a podcast. And for the Black therapists, who are both the helper and the one needing help? I hope that we’re doing what we need to do to make sure we can continue to find strength, turn toward each other, and be of service to others.”
The advice I found myself repeating last year: “When big events like the death of George Floyd happen, it brings a lot up for people. That’s a testament to how trauma works: We do a great job of compartmentalizing, but when something triggering happens, all these things come flooding back. [I tell my clients], we’re human. We’re allowed to have emotions and feelings, and when we’ve gotten it out of our system, it’s good to look around and figure out what you can control and what you can’t. Ask yourself: What do I have? I’m lucky to have a partner to help me take care of my baby, and a job that lets me pay the bills. I know that’s not a given anymore. And I’m thankful I have the skills to support my community during this insane time.”
What I hope carries into 2021: “The year didn’t start out as many hoped; the events at the Capitol are just a reminder that we have so much work to do. As a mental health provider, I will continue holding a safe space for people who continue to navigate living in this country in the skin they are in.”
How I took care of myself in 2020: “I wrote poetry, and I used the time to connect with loved ones more intentionally, including daily walks with my husband and son and calling my friends and family more. I’m still grieving 2020 in very similar ways to my clients. I feel the sadness, the exhaustion at a bone-deep level. Having a lot of love and a solid care practice sustains me."
The advice I found myself repeating last year: “After video surfaced of George Floyd's killing, many of my clients were heart-broken, sad, angry, and exhausted. But they were also motivated to enact change. I see my role as being the one to help them stay committed to the work of dismantling racist systems by being a healer. I find myself saying: ‘You are worthy of self-compassion no matter what, but especially since we're living in a global pandemic.’”
My hope for 2021: “[Even after the storming of the Capitol] I maintain the radical hope that people who are committed to intersectional anti-oppression work will not be deterred by terrorism. Working with clients who are committed to uplifting the community maintains my hope. The number of requests I've received for training and consulting from companies who want to invest in anti-racism beyond a superficial talk maintains my hope. As a Spelman [College] woman, I'm looking at [fellow alumni] Stacey Abrams and her work as inspiration. She represents an undaunted spirit that 2021 requires, so I'm "about that life".
These interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.