ABOVE PHOTO: From left: Isabelle Gauthier, MS, LMFT, BBC; Farida E. Boyer, co-founder/exec. dir, BBC; Kevana Nixon, MA, LMFT, BBC (Photo: Black Brain Campaign)
By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Farida E. Boyer is the co-founder and executive director of the Black Brain Campaign (BBC), an organization that aims to end the stigma surrounding mental illness in the Black community and those who have experienced trauma early in life.
“My mother’s brother killed my father in a domestic dispute when I was 10 years old,” Boyer said.
The stabbing took place near the time and location of the May 1985 MOVE crisis, when police dropped a bomb on a West Philadelphia house where members of the Black liberation group lived. The resulting fire killed 11 people.
“There were helicopters flying over the area,” Boyer said. “To this day, the sound of helicopters is a trigger for me.”
The murder of Boyer’s father devastated her.
“My mother was left a widow,” she said. “It didn’t occur to her that maybe her kids were traumatized, but I was angry. I missed my Dad.
In seventh, eighth, and ninth grades I became known for fighting.”
Boyer’s childhood tragedy guided her toward a career as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). It has also led her to urge Black Americans to acknowledge psychiatric disorders and to seek assistance when it’s needed.
“In the Black community, we often feel that if there’s mental illness in the household, we should keep it in the closet,” said Boyer, who received a citation on March 30 from Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd Dist.) for promoting mental health among Philly’s African Americans. “If we have a physical illness, don’t we get treatment?” she said. “It also helps to remember that everybody is dealing with something, I don’t care who you are.”
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders in Bethesda, Maryland, confirms the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in this country.
“Mental illnesses are common in the United States,” says NIMH’s website. “It is estimated that more than one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness.”
Such disorders affect young people too, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nonprofit headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
“Approximately one in five youths aged 13 to 18 experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life,” said a statement from NAMI. “For children aged eight to fifteen, the estimate is 13% percent.”
Mental illness often carries other implications. It frequently plays a part in delinquent behavior, according to Daniel H. Gillison, Jr., NAMI’s CEO. About “…seventy percent of youths in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition,” Gillison wrote in the spring 2022 issue of “Voice,” NAMI’s newsletter.
Those numbers boil down to this: “Someone on your block or in your family may have mental illness,” said Boyer, a former teacher who served on Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s Transition Team for Education. While stigma sometimes presents a barrier to seeking help for emotional trouble, members of the Black community face the added challenge of few licensed African American therapists, Boyer noted.
“In the U.S., fewer than 5% of licensed therapists are Black,” she said. Yet, if the client and therapist have similar roots it can help. “Clients may share challenges more readily,” Boyer said. “They may feel that a therapist from a similar background may have had similar struggles.”
Language can come into play.
“If a client tells me that her child is cutting up, I know she means that the child is misbehaving,” Boyer said. “On the other hand, a therapist from a different background might interpret ‘cutting up’ to mean that the child is cutting herself [as a form of self-harm].”
Boyer uses family structural therapy with clients. This approach, developed by Salvador Minuchin, aims to restructure how family members interact and address elements causing dysfunction. It looks at the family as a system.
Besides reducing stigma, the BBC wants to increase the number of licensed Black therapists through its Licensure Education Assistance Program (LEAP).
“The licensure process can be intimidating, expensive, and overwhelming,” Boyer said.
“I had to pay $200 just to reschedule my exam,” she said of the test she passed years ago. “LEAP ensures that you’re not alone in this process. The test is hard. You can’t breeze through it.”
The Black Brain Campaign covers the cost of training, study materials, supervision, and exam fees. Grants and special events provide funds.
Boyer drew on her own experience in designing LEAP’s 12-month training program. She found it beneficial to have study partners while prepping for the licensure exam and includes that format in LEAP.
“I formed a group when I was preparing for the exam,” she said. “We spent three hours every Sunday for a year studying together.”
LEAP study materials include practice tests, she added.
Program participants also work toward fulfilling the required hours of counseling clients.
“Participants meet with a supervisor once a week,” Boyer said.
Together, they review a videotaped session of [each] participant with a client to see where their strengths lie and where they could be more effective, Boyer explained. “The therapist sees a minimum of 10 clients a week, and those sessions count toward the hours needed for licensure.”
LEAP candidates must have a master’s degree in clinical counseling or a related field. See the website for details: https://theblackbraincampaign.org/leap/. LEAP participants are also encouraged to receive therapy themselves. Boyer feels that her training, plus being a wife and mother, has deepened her empathy and understanding, but she also credits therapy with helping her grow.
She offers the following tips:
• The Black Brain Campaign offers up to 12 free sessions of family counseling or individual counseling. Call (215) 531-3377 or fill out the contact form on the website at: https://theblackbraincampaign.org/contact/
• Read books that discuss emotions to children so that they have words to express their feelings. Consider books like “I Am O.K. To Feel,” by Karamo Brown; “The Feelings Book,” by Todd Parr; “All Feelings are O.K. a Kid’s Book About Different Moods and Emotions,” by Emily Hayes or children with ADHD may gain understanding from “Cory Stories: A Kid’s Book about living with ADHD,” by Jeanne Kraus.
• Young children are generally open to therapy.
• Rather than avoiding key issues, discuss them in an age-appropriate way.
• Check BBC’s website to learn about special events: https://theblackbraincampaign.org.
• The National Institute of Mental Health offers free pamphlets and brochures in English or Spanish on dozens of topics. See the list at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications. Order the publication by calling toll-free: 1-866-615-6464.
• 988 is Philly’s mental health crisis hotline.
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