Therapists for Protester Wellness: Counseling Psychologists on the Frontlines against Anti-Black Racism

The year 2020 will likely be remembered as one of the most psychologically and financially stressful years in modern history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone began the year with new life adjustments, unemployment, and strict health behavior guidelines. Months later, the Black Lives Matter movement gained visibility and momentum (even though it started in 2013). The multiplicative effect of racism and health pandemic has truly tested society’s psychological flexibility and the ability for humans to respond to repeated negative stimuli. As people continue to adjust to daily life in this new context, many are still figuring out how to process the resurgence of overt racism that claimed the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, among many others.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been especially important to me, given that I am a Black queer woman who has experienced microaggressions and racism. I see how people are affected by racist policies and systemic injustice towards Black lives in my community. I, too, marched daily for Breonna Taylor and, following that experience, my life became quickly immersed in the movement.

As the energy of Black Lives Matter gained traction across the country, I realized how my fellow freedom fighters were both inspired and tired. Protesters were (and continue to be) on the frontlines. As both a licensed therapist and counseling psychology student, I knew protestors were navigating their own racial trauma while fighting for civil rights. Facing tear gas and rubber bullets as well as continued exposure to videos of police brutality was affecting the mental health of protestors.

I knew firsthand that people dedicated to the movement were struggling with:

  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Dissociation
  • Crying spells
  • and so much more

My growing awareness of the experiences of protesters activated my identity as a future counseling psychologist.  Following a particularly heavy day of protesting, I went on social media and asked my fellow therapists to meet me at the next march location to offer a space for processing. Five therapists answered the call and met me at what we began to call “Injustice Square”.

After we met that day, word continued to spread and multiple people reached out to lend mental health support.  As our movement grew, we adopted the name, Therapists for Protester Wellness.

Therapists for Protester Wellness (T4PW) is a group comprised of over 100 mental health professionals who have volunteered their helping abilities for BLM. The group now spans disciplines including licensed mental health therapists, social workers, art therapists, music therapists, massage therapists, reiki healers, and more. Together, this group offers healing to those involved in the fight against systemic racism and injustice and seeking spaces to process their internal experience. Below I will highlight some of the themes that have arisen from our work. I am hopeful that they will inspire other present and future counseling psychologists to explore ways to harness our expertise to support protesters in our communities.

  • Seeing Mental Health Professionals as Activists and Healers. T4PW works to make sure the group’s stance on social justice is clear. For example, the group is intentional about dressing in Black Lives Matter paraphernalia, walking in the marches, and promoting anti-racism when connecting with protesters. The purpose of this approach is to show people that their caregivers are taking an authentic, engaged, collaborative approach to advocating for their client’s needs.
  • Accessibility to a Local Network of Mental Health Professionals Who Value Social Justice. While the startup group of T4PW valued being immersed in the marches and actions, we also wanted a way to be seen as a unique entity to the movement moving forward. This idea led to us expand our visibility and accessibility to protestors. We began to have a table available at each protest that had a banner with our logo. On that table, we had masks, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, referral sheets, and psychoeducational resources that had our group’s mental health first aid. This signified our table as wraparound care for protesters. As our table became known at the community actions, the group agreed that it was time to expand our network so people could connect with us anytime.
  • Creating a Social Media Presence to Further Increase Communication. T4PW created multiple social media pages. The social media pages consist of daily mental health tips, spotlights on Black mental health professionals, and other information pertaining to wellness. The heaviest time for both T4PW and the community was around the announcement day of the charges for the police officers in the Breonna Taylor case. We anticipated no charges and predicted that this would cause an influx of mental health support needed for people affected by the lack of justice. With that in mind, T4PW quickly designed a hotline service and email address where people can text, email, or call the mental health professionals on our team 24/7. The hotline served as a way to connect with people even when many professionals were not available during the midday hours as the decision was announced.
  • Community Integration. The movement evolved from daily marches to specific events that centered around social justice and community. T4PW was intentional about being a part of these occasions by partnering with event coordinators and protest organizers in the local community. Our consistent presence led to organizers initiating contact with us and asking us to be available for their event. At each community function, we aim to have around five mental health professionals, our table, banner, and to wear our T4PW shirts.
  • Community Partnerships. One of our most successful community integration moments was when we collaborated with Black churches for their social justice event. The event consisted of music, preaching, and fellowship. The most important part of the event was the preacher’s emphasis on how spirituality is a part of coping, but we still need to seek out professional mental health care. While we were available throughout the entire event, the host of the event asked the patrons to go to our table at the end of the event to learn more about mental health resources. This is a great example of how partnership with an established, trusted organization can link mental health to a community.
  • Representation Matters. I was intentional about recruiting Black mental health professionals to T4PW. People of all races are welcomed in the organization, but the goal is to change the perspective of mental health and wellness for Black people affected by racial trauma. T4PW has grown to include many Black mental health professionals primarily through social media networks. Now, Black T4PW members are asked before other members to take referrals given to the group for potential clients. They also take priority of representation when T4PW is ever interviewed or videotaped for the press
  • Future of T4PW Within Counseling Psychology. T4PW has the ability to set the foundation for future organizations and networks of mental health professionals that do therapeutic work outside of traditional therapy sessions. The continual growth demonstrates the power of physically standing beside the community when encouraging them to practice wellness. It sets the standard of how a new viewpoint can be shaped for people needing services. Most importantly, T4PW shows just how multidimensional community counseling can be; we can be counselors, advocators, and disruptors simultaneously.

It is my hope that mental health-oriented movements like T4PW will help the communities we serve to see our roles as activists and healers as one in the same. I believe that integration with marginalized communities during moments of self-empowerment may help to destroy barriers between mental health providers and the Black community as well as other historically marginalized communities. The outcomes of community integration can truly be a step forward in how the people of communities see mental health care as imperative during hard times. I invite you to join me as I show the world that counseling psychologists take advocacy seriously at every level. I invite you to join me on the frontlines.

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Millicent Cahoon, LPCA (she/her/hers) is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Louisville in the Counseling Psychology Program. Millicent received her M.A. in Counseling from Northwestern University and her B.A. in Psychology from the University of Kentucky. Millicent’s research interests focus on the mental health effects on Black Americans in Low SES communities. For leisure, Millicent enjoys music, trying new foods, and playing with her three fur babies.

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