Black History in Psychology

“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken”

Audre Lorde

History is important because it connects us to a context greater than ourselves, as well as the larger community that helps us process things better and be greater than the whole. This is part of the reason why Black History Month was created. Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976 as a national event after decades of efforts to recognize the often-neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in United States and global history. This exclusion from history is seen in so many aspects of life, including mental health. Within the African American community there is a lot of skepticism about seeking services, which is a result of years of unethical treatment that continues to the current day. From racial eugenics and forced sterilization, to Henrietta Lacks whose cells were taken without her permission and used (to this day!) for medical research, to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (which were continued in Guatemala after being deemed too unethical for the United States), to the history of gynecology, to the increased risk of complications and death due tocovid-19, there are many examples of how the medical field hurts Black Americans. Due to this deep history of abuse by the medical field and erasure of the contributions made by these individuals, it makes sense that there is mistrust by the community. Being disconnected from one’s history and contributions can lead to a sense of isolation and not belonging/not being wanted by the culture around you/excluded and exploited by a society that steals from your culture and dehumanizes you. 

Connecting to the History of Psychology

Often Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) feel that they are excluded from mental health spaces. Part of that is because of the earned mistrust in the medical and mental health fields, and part of it is because the field often excludes issues that are major concerns for these communities. Psychology and mental health issues are primarily seen as white, Western traditions that do not prioritize the things that are important to people outside of the dominant cultural narrative. But if we look at and understand that counseling is a healing practice, it becomes clear that it includes BIPOC. With that being said, let’s first look at the contributions BIPOC have made in the field of psychology and counseling.

Black Psychologists

“In the future, as in the present, as in the past, Black people will build many new worlds. This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.” 

N. K. Jemisin

Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD: Father of Black American Psychologists (1895-1954)

  • The first African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in 1920 from Lincoln University
  • He focused on refuting racism and bias in Eurocentric theory and research of psychology

Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, Ed.D (1895-1934)

  • The first African American woman to receive a doctoral degree in psychology in 1933 from the University of Colorado
  • Her work focused on the education system and the different outcomes of students in integrated vs. segregated schools

Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard Beckham, PhD (1900-1997)

  • Received a PhD in psychology and child development in 1934 from the University of Minnesota
  • Dedicated her career to the advancement of women and children in her community

Dr. Herman George Canady, PhD (1901-1970)

  • Received a Ph.D. in psychology in 1941 from Northwestern University
  • The first psychologist to examine the role of the race of the examiner as a bias factor in IQ testing
  • Spearheaded the movement to organize Black professionals in psychology

Dr. Joseph L. White, PhD: Godfather of Black Psychology (1932-2017)

  • Received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1961 from Michigan State University
  • Proposed the seven major psychological strengths of African-Americans (2005)
    • Improvisation
    • Resilience
    • Connectedness to others
    • Spirituality
    • Emotional vitality
    • Gallows humor
    • Healthy cultural suspicion 

Dr. Robert V. Guthrie (1932-2005)

  • Described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “one of the most influential and multifaceted African-American scholars of the century”
  • Wrote Even the Rat was White: A Historical View of Psychology
    • Exposed that long history of racist work in psychology
    • Profiled overlooked Black psychologists 
  • First African-American to have his papers included in the National Archives of American Psychology

Dr. Robert Lee Williams II, PhD (1930-2020)

  • Received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1961 from Washington University in St. Louis
  • Created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (BITCH-100) in 1972
    • Created to demonstrate how cultural content on intelligence tests may lead to culturally biased score results 
    • Set a precedent for the critical examination and rejection of Eurocentric intelligence testing

Dr. William Cross (1940–present)

  • Received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1976 from Princeton University
  • Proposed one of the first models of Black racial identity development in psychology

Dr. Janet E. Helms (present)

  • Received her doctorate in psychology with a specialization in counseling psychology in 1975 from Iowa State University
  • Her work focuses on how race, culture, and gender can influence one’s personality and participating counseling styles 
  • Challenged inherent racial bias in construction of assessment tools
  • Racial Identity Theory

The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi)

  • Established in 1968 
  • Original goal was to have a positive impact upon the mental health of the national Black community by means of planning, programs, services, training, and advocacy
  • Current goal is to promote social justice, cultural psychology, racial/ethnic identity and multicultural competencies, and addresses challenges facing the black community

Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD)

  • Division of the American Counseling Association chartered in 1972
  • Part of its mission is to enhance the development, human rights and the psychological health of ethnic/racial populations and all people as critical to the social, educational, political, professional and personal reform in the United States and globally

Since the early days of psychology BIPOC individuals have been present and advocating for the issues that concern their communities. 

What are specific needs of BIPOC individuals?

There are many issues that impact communities of color’s physical and mental well-being. These include lack of access to resources such as healthcare, steady employment, nutritious foods due to food apartheids, and housing due to the continued effects of redlining on the housing market. There is also the stress of the continued global pandemic and increased cultural awareness of racial trauma. 

Racial trauma, a form of race-based stress, refers to BIPOC reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination. In the past year, many causes of race-based stress were highlighted, including the continued police brutality and murder of BIPOC individuals, the increased lack of support from the government, and the lack of access to basic needs. This stress can cause many health problems because of what stress does to the body. This can include physical affects like headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, stomach issues, and sleep problems; mood issues like anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, and sadness or depression; or behavioral issues like over- or under-eating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse, and social withdrawal. There can also be long-term problems like higher rates of diabetes, substance use, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders. 

So what about mental health?

“All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes You. The only lasting truth is Change.” 

Octavia E. Butler 

When dealing with all of these stressors, it is important to find ways of approaching healing. Here are some suggestions to begin in that healing:

  • Eating healthy and getting 7-8 hours of sleep
  • Staying physically active and making space for moment in your life
  • Connect with others who reaffirm your humanity
  • Practice self-care routines
  • Seek out healing practices consistent with your beliefs
  • Take breaks from technology and social media
  • Explore relaxation techniques such as deep breathing
  • Learn to understand what you can and cannot control

This process can be difficult but important for one’s wellbeing and functioning. You have the skills to heal, and we can help. 

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Audre Lorde


This month’s post was written by Jessie Duncan, BS.

Healing in a Difficult Time

Understanding what is going on

To begin taking care of your mental health, you need to understand the things that are affecting it. The two biggest events happening right now are the Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19, and it is important to understand why these factors are affecting the mental health of many individuals.

The current protests began due to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN on May 25, 2020, after a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. George begged for his life and pleaded that he was in pain, could not breathe, and could not move, but the police officers ignored his pleas. The recent protests seem to be much louder and more widespread than they have been in the past and as a result, many are confused as to why there has been such a large worldwide response. This is because of a combination of factors, including the social isolation due to COVID-19 and the continued unjust deaths of Black and Brown individuals during the stay-at-home order (Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, and others).

It is worth noting that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color according to preliminary data released by the CDC. A couple of the reasons for this is the disparity in economic and social conditions that primarily affect people of color. This is due to how systems of education, government and the media celebrate and reward some cultures over others in ways that are often invisible. An example is how bandages come in “flesh-color” as pink/beige and this was unquestioned by a majority of people because white is the assumed default. A less benign example is the history of medical experimentation and poor treatment of black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) that lead to higher rates of diabetes, substance use, high blood pressure and maternal death during pregnancy.

Years of this injustice, along with social media as a means to reach others and organize, have led to the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement began as a hashtag on Twitter in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman in 2013. This organization, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, developed into a global movement that is spearheading our current protests. The purpose of the organization is to connect communities, intervene when there is violence against Black communities, and provide a space for women, queer, and trans people to be recognized for their leadership in the work of liberation.

Now how does this relate to mental health?

Due to everything that is happening, some people might be experiencing retraumatization from centuries of intergenerational trauma, especially Black individuals. This retrauamtization can have a significant negative impact on the mental health of those in the BIPOC community. Others may be affected by compassion fatigue or burnout when dealing with the grief and shared pain of other’s suffering. This can lead to shutting down or avoiding any distressing information or news. It is especially important that BIPOC take care of their mental health to be strengthened as a community and continue the fight for liberation. It is just as important that others who are sharing in the grief and pain felt by the Black community also find ways to manage their mental health to effectively be allies in the fight for liberation. This is a challenge, and many may feel lost and have no idea where to start. Here are some useful tips that can help with finding where to start your mental health journey.

So how can I approach mental health?

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

-Maya Angelou

In this challenging time it is important to find ways to practice self-compassion and allow yourself to find moments of peace. Some suggestions for approaching this are:

  • Cultivate hope, love, compassion, and joy
  • Listen to your emotions and accept what is there
  • Examine the greater cultural context and how your fit within it
  • Connect with others
  • Reconnect with your mind-body connection through healing practices

Another approach is through radical healing. Radical healing is a form of healing for people of color that recognizes that true healing happens when we are connected and aim for wellness at the individual, family, community, and societal levels.

Here are suggestions of ways to utilize radical healing to build connection and community:

  • Learn more about the issues that are affecting your mental health
  • Work on self-care and individual healing/Engage in Mind-Body Healing/Nurture your spirituality and practice self-compassion
  • Connect to others and be affirmed in your humanity and increase emotional intimacy
  • Connect to the deeper roots of your identity and culture
  • Learn more about your cultural and become curious about other cultures
  • Take action and actively work towards social justice; Take action to address racism and inequities when you can

By staying psychologically and physically healthy during this time we are able to direct our focus where it is truly needed without distraction. You have all the pieces, we are here to give you the tools to connect to them. Contact us today to begin your journey to wellness.

Helpful Resources

This month’s post was written by Jessie Duncan, the TriWellness intern. You can learn more about Jessie here.