Inside the pandemic: Two mental health workers and community volunteers discuss how cultural experiences and racial trauma affect mental health in BIPOC communities

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About eight months ago, two  community volunteers crossed paths. One of them, Imei Hsu, is a Public Health – Seattle & King County Reserve Corps volunteer and an experienced mental health therapist of more than 20 years with a background in nursing. The other, Mike Swann, a volunteer with South King Emotional Wellness League (SKEWL) and the Seattle King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was a practicing nurse working towards becoming a mental health therapist.

When Imei learned that Mike had completed most of his course work to become a therapist but might need a few more supervisory hours—a requirement needed for licensure—she stepped forward to offer mentorship and supervision at no cost.

As a clinical supervisor, Imei knew how difficult and expensive those final steps toward licensure can be, and she was happy to offer her support. With their shared nursing backgrounds, they were a perfect match.  She also knew that helping Mike would be helping to add more mental health support to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

There is a lack of diversity among behavioral health professionals and a need to create more opportunities for BIPOC people in this field. Research has shown that  understanding a person’s cultural connection is an important part of the counseling process. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, this need has expanded dramatically.

Not enough support for the hardest hit communities

Public health volunteer in personal protective gear holding vaccine vile at public health clinic
Imei Hsu prepares to help with COVID-19 vaccinations at the Kent Public Health Center.

Imei recalls around the middle of March 2020, her phone would not stop ringing.

Requests for counseling started to rise during the first “stay at home” orders in the pandemic, and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. And the need increased after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, adding further stress to BIPOC communities. People were calling and asking, “What do I do? Where can I go?” Schools were calling, saying their kids were terrified.

“I basically just started having to refer people out and say I’m full,” said Imei, who identifies as Asian-American and who has an online counseling practice that hosts clients in Washington state and beyond. “But these populations were being hit very, very hard, and they didn’t always feel safe and willing to just accept the next available therapist. They wanted someone who understood their lived experience, someone who knew about intergenerational racial trauma and fragmented immigration stories.”

Racism: A public health crisis, and that includes mental health

Understanding the trauma caused by racism is essential for improving mental health, said Mike, who is African American and a licensed mental health crisis counselor at Kitsap Mental Health.

Public health volunteers stand under tent on sunny day behind table with sign that reads "Connect to Community"
Mike Swann, pictured far right, volunteers at a COVID-19 vaccination event with Public Health – Seattle & King County staff members Jessica Do and Norilyn de la Pena.

“There definitely is a lot of racial trauma out there that needs to be examined. We need to do a better job addressing trauma in our communities,” he said.

While working with Right at Home, an in-home care agency, Mike helped start a diversity committee to talk about how they could improve their understanding of racial trauma as an organization and be sensitive to the needs of the BIPOC community.

“I encourage all organizations to place the discussion of racial trauma front and center and to develop strategies for providing support and resources to those who need it.”

Changing perception and removing stigma

Imei and Mike are committed to continue working on changing public perception and making mental health a more regular and normalized part of everyday life, as they still see a lot of stigma around going to see a counselor.

“I got help from my counselor when I was in school,” he said. “I understand the value of good school counselors and having mental health and wellness integrated into the program. It helped me personally and it showed me what mental health as a profession looks like.”

Mike references his work as a volunteer with SKEWL to provide free mental health services, and how they are making headway in changing people’s perception of the mental health system.

“We tell people it’s okay to get help. It’s okay to receive treatment. We want them to know they can access mental health services and there’s no shame in it.”

Working together to meet the demand

In the short-term, to meet the urgency for more mental health support, Imei would like to see better collaboration among BIPOC health providers.

“You don’t have to do it all and feel like you are just one therapist trying to take on hundreds of calls. You would be swamped,” she said. “But instead, the focus can be on networking with other BIPOC therapists across the state, and with specialists who can address one piece at a time.”

Imei, who has been recognized for her valuable work in the community, also continues to make herself available as a clinical supervisor for students such as Mike. She explains how difficult it can be to find a supervisor. It is not something that is set up by a student’s college or university program, and it can be a long process to find a supervisor who is the right fit.

“When prospective BIPOC therapists are searching for supervision, I don’t want this to be a barrier for them. I only have so many more years before I retire, and while I can’t be all things to all people, I’m going to try my hardest to make sure I leave behind a legacy of really great BIPOC therapists.”

Hope for the future

As a longer-term solution, Imei is looking to youth. “We need to focus on the younger generation. Dangling it in front of them that mental health is important. Dangling it in front of them that just like STEM and STEAM fields, there’s another option for them professionally. I want a whole troop of people in the BIPOC community who identify across genders to enter into the field 10 to 15 years from now.”

Mental health resources for BIPOC communities

The following organizations help connect members of BIPOC communities to mental health services. Additional mental health resources are available on Public Health’s Community support and well-being page.

  • South King Emotional Wellness League
    A community partnership promoting mental health and emotional well-being in south King County communities most impacted by COVID19 and police violence, including virtual mental health supports and other resources.
  • Racial Trauma (Mental Health America)
    Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.

Originally published May 28, 2021