The Reality of Racism in the Mental Health Industry—Perspectives from a Black Psychologist | Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford


I decided to write this article in response to an ongoing issue that either goes unnoticed by people who aren’t people of color (POC) or are reluctant to bring up this topic because it’s often associated with discomfort.

As clinicians, we are expected to provide therapy, motivate, encourage, and advocate for individuals and families dealing with mental illness, trauma, and life challenges.

Many of the individuals and families we treat need both encouragement and hope.

However, it can be difficult to inspire others when we are losing or have lost hope due to racism in our industry.

Many of us will never advance beyond a certain point in our careers or receive a salary comparable to non-POC people, especially African Americans.

The actions companies use to prevent and limit professional growth opportunities for African Americans and other POCs are usually subtle.

In fact, they can be so subtle that if you haven’t experienced them before, they can be hard to detect.

If you’ve experienced this before, you’re more likely to ask yourself, “Am I seeing and feeling what I think I’m seeing and feeling?”

Unfortunately, it is a form of gaslighting.

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How Inequalities in the Workplace Affect African American Mental Health Clinicians

According research based on an analysis of member accounts Maintained by the Zippia jobs website, African-American mental health clinicians earn an average of $46,982 per year, the lowest average salary of any ethnicity tracked by the company. In contrast, Asian mental health clinicians are the highest paid demographic with an average annual salary of $53,691.

Black therapists are expected to play well, be team players, and keep quiet so as not to be seen as combative. We can hold higher degrees than our supervisors, have more experience, and train the individuals who will eventually make more money and climb the social ladder ahead of us (if we are even allowed to climb).

There needs to be more awareness about this issue.

Job-based gaslighting may look like a position that has been filled and you didn’t know was available, but people who look different know the position is open. Applying for a position and not receiving an acknowledgment of application, never receiving an interview, or receiving an interview that is repeatedly rescheduled due to scheduling conflicts (on the part of the interviewer) that is finally canceled and a job advertisement for the position applied for is sent to “all staff” in an e-mail.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) encompasses the symbiotic relationship, philosophy and culture of recognizing, embracing, supporting and accepting those of all racial, sexual, gender, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, among other differentiators. The term DEI is trending among many organizations and media and is touted by almost everyone who faces the public.

Yet, in my experience, it is rarely implemented.

Unfortunately, people who are not in the field of social, behavioral and mental health may not know that there are gatekeepers to success and advancement. We try to build our customers while simultaneously being diminished.

How Racial Bias Appears in the Mental Health Industry

Ironically, mental health professionals are encouraged to “meet the client where they are,” which means providing individualized care for their unique experiences with respect to diagnosis, race, culture, socio- economic, etc. To put it bluntly, we are meant to understand and consider the nuances of each other’s behavior and lived experiences.

What others do not see or refuse to see, we have no choice but to see and experience. How many other people can say they got hired based on their phone interview, in-person interview, resume and experience – to show up for their first day on the job and everyone asks why are they there?

I know what you’re thinking: if they were interviewing you, shouldn’t they know you’re black? The short answer is yes.

I was interviewed with a woman who shared the same first name and a similar last name. My work experience was broader than his (I was told over the phone how my selection for the position was made), my CV and my diplomas.

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I should have known something was wrong when the black delivery guy dropped off his packages at the office on the first day.

He seemed shocked that I had recently been hired by this organization, even responding in a whisper, “I didn’t know they were hiring people like you, like me, for your type of position.”

I sat with my mouth open for an inordinate amount of time as he finished delivering the packages and said his final goodbye “Be safe, sister.”

Struggling with what the delivery person had told me, I began to think back to all the stares I had received from other staff members when I walked into the office earlier that morning. I was then presented with a large back end computer, the kind you see in the movie “16 Candles” and asked to create an Excel spreadsheet.

I couldn’t figure out how to use this computer, turn it off and on, and other “modern” staff computers. After trying to create the spreadsheet for several hours that would include current customers, I was asked to come into my boss’s office.

After entering the office, I noticed that there were two resumes on his desk. He asked me to check my name and work history again, apparently shocked, he kept saying “So this is you, this is your resume?” Answering yes, I asked if there were any further questions and returned to my office.

Later that day I was informed that bifocals and an umbrella were missing. I was fired the next day because I was “unable to use the company-provided computer to their satisfaction”. On my way out I saw what was supposed to be my office cleaned up and a new computer placed there, my namesake entering as I was leaving.

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Stigma in the mental health industry is nothing new

This experience and many others have changed the way I think about equality, especially in the workplace.

I don’t know many people who have been “hired” for a new venture targeting POCs in need of mental health services just to be fired once they get the contract or grant.

Using black therapists to gain the trust of a like-minded population is not a “new thing”, it’s a historic thing that fails to be addressed.

One of my most disappointing memories was when I was “hired” by a company (I use quotes because I was told I couldn’t be officially hired until the company had not awarded the contract, I will remain a contractor until signing) to market mental health services to individuals and families living in Raleigh, NC.

A week later I started hearing whispers from other staff saying they had received job offer letters from the company, I had not received an offer letter. I went to the CEO and asked him about the contract. Feeling that I knew the company had won the contract, I was initially asked “I need another week to send offer letters. I’m really busy right now, is it that it’s fine?”

When the week passed and I still hadn’t heard anything or received a letter of offer, I was told I wouldn’t get the job permanently, “I was too clinical.” When I reminded the CEO that I was fulfilling the role of Director of Clinical Services and did not understand her statement, she had no response.

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A few weeks later, the position was filled by someone less educated and closely resembling the CEO and other recently hired staff.

Many African American therapists have expressed a sense of helplessness when it comes to salary and job mobility. Often we are encouraged to create groups on Slack.

Slack is a business messaging app that connects people. Slack offers many IRC-style features, including persistent chat rooms (channels) organized by topic, private groups, and direct messaging.

However, the channel designated for African Americans is generally underutilized or not utilized at all as many people do not believe that information shared on the channel is private or monitored by “the higher ups”. African American therapists typically text each other using their personal cell phones to express both frustrations and concerns.

Contrary to the assumptions of some, black people are people of courage, pride, passion and aspiration, we strive to build and create better days than the day before. It is not a “joy” just to have a job, but a joy to be treated and have the same opportunities as others, regardless of race, culture, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who focuses on relationships, dating and personality issues, as well as a Certified Relationship Specialist with Diplomat Status and an Expert with the American Psychotherapy Association.

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