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A Safe Space

Black therapists on a year of “nonstop clamor” for their services

Between police shootings, mass protests and the violent storming of the Capitol, and a pandemic that has aggravated already-gaping racial inequities in health outcomes, employment, childcare, and housing, many Black Americans are seeking out therapy for the first time. Black therapists have felt the resounding impact of this toll, with many experiencing an unprecedented uptick in demand.

Dr. Racine Henry’s calendar year usually ebbs and flows, with clients seeking sessions in the spring and fall and after the New Year before dropping them in the summer and holiday season. In 2021, though, “there’s been no downtime,” says Henry, a Black couples and family therapist in New York. “It’s just been straight intensity.” Victoria S. Grey, a therapist in Boulder, Colorado, also noticed a “nonstop” clamor, especially people with whom they share a Black multiracial identity. “Part of that is due to the pandemic, but then combined with this increased social awareness of all these historically marginalized pieces of one’s identity,” they said. “One can suddenly now seek out therapists who align with and understand those things.”

The surge has highlighted the integral and unique role of Black therapists—as well as their overwhelming underrepresentation in the profession. Only 4 percent of psychologists and 2 percent of psychiatrists are Black, according to a 2015 American Psychological Association survey. Journalist Patrice Peck, author of the acclaimed newsletter “Coronavirus News for Black Folks,” spoke with Henry and Grey to learn more about what they’ve noticed among sessions with Black clients, their thoughts on demand for Black therapists, and how they’re maintaining their own mental health.

Reader note: This story includes mentions of violence.

Dr. Racine Henry:

The number-one thing my Black clients are seeking is a safe space. I think people have had to reevaluate their friend groups, maybe even their relationships. Because I’m a couples therapist, I have a lot of clients who were in interracial and intercultural relationships wanting to talk about race in their home, when it wasn’t an issue before. So it calls into question, “Am I safe with my white partner? Am I safe in my apartment where I have two roommates who might not be people of color, or in my work environment or school environment?” Having to reexamine those safe spaces can be traumatic, but it’s also a way toward healing by creating new spaces that might truly be more safe or initiating some of these really hard conversations.


Victoria S. Grey:

I’ve had a range of Black and BIPOC clients and multiracial clients, which has been interesting because that’s my identity, and a lot of people specifically seek me out for that, too. They’re asking those questions: “How do I navigate these multicultural, multiracial relationships?” I have a lot of clinicians, too, who reached out for support who are living in areas that are more rural. They’re seeing things like parades of proud white supremacists outside their homes and asking, “This is an area that I work and live in. What do I do with this?”

Henry: Of course we want therapy and mental health services to be culturally informed. But I also feel protective of that space, because I think there’s a lot of pandering that goes on. So I hope that the people who are doing it are remaining curious, pursuing training, staying on top of themselves, and also being aware of their own potential biases. Just because I’m Black and my clients might be Black doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own assumptions or feelings about Black people or Black topics. So there’s a way in which you have to self-regulate in order to really be helpful to people who are in need.

Whenever I encounter a white clinician who says they’re culturally informed or they know how to treat people of color, I always sort of bristle at that and challenge them on what that looks like. Because I don’t think a white person could tell me that they’re an expert on culturally informed practices, and maybe that’s my bias. But I think as a Black person, I have the right to have that bias. There’s a lived experience that comes along with doing this work that you can’t learn. You can’t possibly understand, by no fault of your own. If you feel like, “I get it because I have X amount of Black clients, X amount of Black friends,” you’re not really getting it at all. You’re totally missing the point of this therapy or this service being culturally informed by the person sitting across from you, them informing you about their experience of their culture.

Grey: There’s definitely an edge that I’ve experienced between getting away from the performative allyship of just saying, “Yeah, we’re anti-racist. We’re culturally humble. We’re culturally informed.” Those are all beautiful and important things to be saying, but often it demands pretty radical changes in the way we do business to really address the biases that are present in these longstanding institutions. That’s where a lot of people really start to slow down and you start to hear some really odd stuff: “Well, we can’t go that fast” or “That’s a little bit too much.” And it’s like, are we really wanting to be culturally informed or wanting to say that we’re culturally informed? Some folks aren’t quite ready to do that work.

“I don’t try to run away from the feeling of overwhelm, but rather embrace it as a part of the process.”

Henry: Therapy is all about fit, feeling like this person gets you, sees you, and you can talk to that person. It’s like dating. Stay with the process until you find that person and that connection. There shouldn’t be effort behind feeling good with your therapist. If your therapist does not make you feel like you can talk to them or that they hear you, get a different therapist. Don’t be afraid to break up with your therapist. Don’t be afraid to have three or four first sessions with different people to compare them. Don’t commit right away. Take your time.

Therapy is a process and it’s, really, mostly on the client more than therapists. So you have to do the work, you have to be committed to it, and you have to give it time. It’s not going to happen overnight. So both things are going to take time: finding the right therapist and then for therapy to really feel like it’s happened. But therapy doesn’t always work, either, so you have to allow that to be part of the equation as well.

Grey: Even if you’ve done a couple of sessions and you’re like, “It’s just not happening,” recognize that you have the full power to say, “This isn’t working, and I’m going to go try something else.” That can be a very healthy and constructive part of the process.

Henry: Also, ask for discounts. Ask a therapist if they have a sliding scale or pro bono slots, or if they know of anybody that does. Don’t be shy about discussing the financial part of it, because therapy is an investment financially, as well. There are several ways you can get low-cost or free therapy. You’ll be surprised, but a lot of clinicians do offer that, but clients don’t always ask. So don’t be shy about that part, too.

Grey: Even another option that I’ve seen rising along with that is group therapy. And they can be much more affordable and a really, really neat community-building space, too. Recognizing what’s sustainable financially is a huge, huge piece of the puzzle.

“There’s a lived experience that comes along with doing this work that you can’t learn.”

Henry: The uptick sort of overwhelmed and surprised me at first. At the time, I was partnering with a few hospitals to work with their doctors and medical students around dealing with COVID patients and seeing so much death. That took a huge toll on me, and I had to step back and reestablish boundaries and self-care practices, reach out to my network of professionals who are also friends and colleagues, and just talk about it and be able to process it. But for me, at least, I don’t know that it’s possible to maintain a feeling of “I’m doing this really well,” because it of course goes up and down. You have to remember that you’re human and allow yourself those human emotions. Juggling all that while being a wife and mom and person, all these other roles I have, it can be really hard. It can be really overwhelming, but I think I’m OK with being overwhelmed, knowing that when that happens, I have resources and things to bring myself back down. So I don’t try to run away from the feeling of overwhelm, but rather embrace it as a part of the process and know what to do to rectify it when it happens.

Grey: I feel like I’m kind of riding the knife’s edge, where I’m trying to be more available for this surge of folks that I’m receiving and trying to partner with nonprofits and organizations that can provide services. But then still seeing waitlists of 200-plus people and just recognizing there aren’t enough clinicians in many ways. I think getting really clear on boundaries and trying not to flex as much as I might have historically, just taking more downtime, is important. I’m a big fan of listening to music as a form of meditation. So just trying to ride the wave and sometimes feeling good about it, sometimes not. But I’m trying to offer what support I can and kind of recognizing that if I’m too burned out, then I’m not going to be able to offer any support.

Several mental health-related queries reached the highest level ever in 2021, including how to find a therapist.

By Patrice Peck


Patrice Peck is a journalist and cultural critic based in New York City and Los Angeles. She covers race, identity, and culture across all beats, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vogue, EBONY, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and more.

Basil Kincaid

Basil Kincaid is from St. Louis, Missouri, and is a post-disciplinary artist who, through quilting, collaging, photography, installation and performance—done with found, salvaged, and donated materials—discards social mores while drafting alternative cultural fabrics. In 2021, Kincaid became a United States Artist Fellow and joined the Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.