Barbara Ford Shabazz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the owner of Intentional Activities, a personal and professional coaching company, says that societal factors such as lack of diversity among mental health professionals play a significant role in many Black individuals’ decision not to seek help.
“Working with a therapist who we feel a connection with or who might understand our experiences can make all the difference,” she says. But the mental health workforce lacks Black practitioners, she adds — “making some Black clients reluctant to seek services because they fear their therapist may not understand their experiences as a Black person.”
Two percent of American psychiatrists and 4 percent of psychologists are Black, per SAMHSA. Black individuals make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, per 2023 Pew data.
Data published in 2020 found that 10.4 percent of practicing psychiatrists are Black, Latino, or Native American, those these groups make up 32.6 percent of the U.S. population.
To comply with best practices and to provide ethical and unbiased care to clients, several professional and educational organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers have ethical standards for members of their respective fields, which strongly recommend diversity training in school before practitioners get licensed, as well as afterward.
The APA, for example, states that psychologists should be aware of their own cultural and racial identities as well as that of their clients. This includes that providers be knowledgeable about societal factors such as racism, bias, and prejudice that negatively affect people of color.
Licensure requirements, however, can vary from profession to profession and state by state.
Mullan says she, however, is concerned that not all mental health professionals receive sufficient diversity training.
The California Board of Psychologists requires that psychologists complete 36 hours of training (such as classes, conferences, or workshops) every two years to maintain their license and continue practicing — and that four of those hours be related to cultural diversity and social justice.
But, according to the APA, this makes California one of only nine states that require psychologists to participate in diversity training as part of their continuing education requirements (to retain their licenses to practice) as of 2023.
“Representation matters and the lack of diversity in the field presents a significant issue for Black clients who feel more comfortable working with a Black provider who may share some of their experiences,” Mullan explains.