When therapist Cecil Wattree, founder of the Kansas City Black Mental Health Initiative, launched a program for Black clients to receive free therapy sessions from licensed Black therapists, he conducted a mental health survey of the prospective clients. What he found was almost all of the participants ranked positive for depression, anxiety or trauma.

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, yet only one in three Black adults who need mental health services actually receives them.

“The Black community struggles with poverty, systemic racism, and violence perpetrated on and within daily living,” Wattree said. “Other barriers of stigmatization and lack of resources for mental health contribute to our disparities.”

This month, the KC Black Mental Health Initiative will again offer their Black Therapy Initiative which will provide 15 Black participants, age 15 and above, a total of four free therapy sessions over nine weeks. All of the sessions will be provided by Black therapists, with the services funded through donations made through the Black Mental Health Initiative’s financial partner, Uzazi Village.

The group is looking for therapists and interested clients for the program. Once all the client spots are filled, a wait list will be created.

At the end of the cycle, clients will take a treatment survey for the group’s research initiative, which will track if there was any reduction in their depression or anxiety.

With more funding in the future, Wattree hopes the Black Therapy Initiative can give free therapy to more Black clients without a wait list.

The Black Mental Health Initiative, which began in 2019, has an overall goal of mentally liberating the Black community by de-stigmatizing and bringing awareness to Black mental wellness.

According to a study about Black men and women’s attitudes toward mental illness, 63% believe a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness, which leads to many of them failing to seek out therapy for fear of shame.

“We are so into the ‘what goes on in my house stays in my house,’ so that’s one reason why people don’t want to come to therapy,” said Erica Thompson, a counselor with more than 10 years of experience in the mental health field.

Thompson, who will be a therapist in this year’s Black Therapy Initiative, says she often hears her Black clients bring up the different stigmas they have toward therapy and mental health. Many assume all therapists are the same – that they’ll document everything you say and repeat it to someone else, or they assume that therapy is only for “crazy people.”

“Everybody can benefit from therapy, especially if you don’t have a support system,” Thompson said. “It’s an outlet and self-care. I’m in your corner and I’m here for you.”

Thompson said many people also think therapy is just a one-sided conversation, where the client does all the talking. In Thompson’s sessions, she lets her clients ask questions about her own background to find common interests.

“I actually have conversations with people. It’s not just you just spilling your guts and then that’s it and I’m just sitting here staring at you. It’s really having a conversation,” she said, adding that it is all about finding the right therapist.

One of the most successful ways Thompson has seen Black clients overcome the stigmas they have toward counseling is through word of mouth. When her clients spread the word about their positive experiences in therapy and how it can truly help, she’s seen it change other people’s perceptions.

Wattree agrees that a culmination of dialogue, engagement and more Black mental health professionals will eventually transform the attitudes the Black community has toward mental health conversations.

“I want people to be able to talk and create dialogue about Black mental health because the more we talk about it, the more people mentally get habituated to it,” Wattree said.

Therapists or clients interested in participating in the Black Therapy Initiative should email: KCBMHI@gmail. com.

Donations for the Black Therapy Initiative can be made through Uzazi Village’s website: UzaziVillage.org/ donate. Or Venmo: @Uzazi-Village. Or CashApp: $UzaziVillage.

For a directory of Black therapists in Kansas City, visit: www.PsychologyToday.com/us/therapists/africanamerican/mo/kansas-city.

Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

Jazzlyn "Jazzie” is the former senior reporter for our team, who joined the company in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, through the Report for America service program. For the past two years, she covered...

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