Honoring Black Leaders in Mental Health: A Look at Their Legacy and Impact

Published on February 28, 2023
Written by Carla Smith, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

Black leaders in mental health have made tremendous contributions to the field, despite facing significant barriers and challenges. These pioneers worked tirelessly to advance mental health services and promote greater understanding of the unique needs of Black communities. As we work to address ongoing disparities in mental health care, it is important to honor their legacy and recognize their impact. 

By honoring these leaders, we celebrate the lives and work of countless Black leaders in mental health, along with the impact their legacies continue to make on the world.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark ​

  • Best known for his groundbreaking work on the effects of segregation and racism on children’s self esteem.
  • His testimony was used in several landmark court cases during the Civil Rights Movement including Brown v. Board of Education.
  • His televised interviews with James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were published in a book entitled “The Negro Protest” in 1963.
  • At the forefront of articulating societal racism’s intersectionality with self-esteem through psychology.
  • His writings include “Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power” (1965), “Prejudice and Your Child” (1953), “Crisis in Urban Education” (1971), and “The Negro American” (1966).

Dr. Na’im Akbar​

  • After receiving his Ph.D., Akbar accepted a position in the psychology department at Morehouse College in Atlanta. There, he instituted Morehouse’s first Black psychology course and eventually developed probably the first Black psychology program at a Historically Black College or University.
  • Known for his work on cultural identity and the importance of understanding the cultural context of mental health.
  • Advocate for improving access to mental health services for Black communities.

Clark W. Finley

  • Established the Tuskegee Institute Mental Hygiene Clinic in Alabama in the 1930s – one of the first mental health clinics for Black Americans.
  • Strong advocate for the rights of patients with mental illness.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint

  • After receiving his Ph.D., Akbar accepted a position in the psychology department at Morehouse College in Atlanta. There, he instituted Morehouse’s first Black psychology course and eventually developed probably the first Black psychology program at a Historically Black College or University.
  • Known for his work on cultural identity and the importance of understanding the cultural context of mental health.
  • Advocate for improving access to mental health services for Black communities.
  • Written extensively on the topic, including co-authoring the book “Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans.” 
  • An influential voice in the push for culturally competent mental health care and has advocated for greater understanding and awareness of the unique challenges faced by Black Americans in accessing mental health services.
  • one of the founding members of Operation PUSH, and today lends support to the SCLC, NAACP, Urban League, and many community organizations.

Dr. Edward Franklin Frazier

  • One of the first Black American sociologists to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago. 
  • The first African American president of the American Sociological Society.
  • A vocal critic of the treatment of Black Americans in mental health institutions and wrote extensively about the subject, including his influential book “The Negro Family in the United States.”

Dr. Frances Cress Welsing

  • A psychiatrist and author who was best known for her work on the psychology of racism. 
  • In her seminal book, “The Isis Papers,” she argued that the systematic oppression of Black people in America was rooted in a fear of genetic annihilation.
  • Her work has had a profound impact on the field of racial trauma, and her legacy continues to inspire mental health practitioners to address the psychological impact of racism.

Audre Lorde

  • Poet and activist who wrote extensively on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. 
  • Her work explored the intersectionality of these issues and their impact on mental health and wellness. 
  • Prominent speaker at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights
  • Founding member of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organization that advocated on behalf of women living under apartheid.
  • Lorde’s 1984 collection, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, included her canonical essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” which called on feminists to acknowledge the many differences among women and to utilize them as a source of power rather than one of division.

Throughout history, Black leaders have played a critical role in advancing mental health care and advocacy. From breaking down barriers to access to care to developing innovative approaches to therapy and community building, Black leaders have left a lasting impact on the mental health field.

These are just a few of the many Black leaders who have left an indelible mark on the mental health field. Their work continues to inspire and guide mental health practitioners in their efforts to provide compassionate and effective care to people of all backgrounds

Sources:

https://www.thehistorymakers.org/

https://www.nabsw.org/page/History

https://aaregistry.org/

https://www.womenshistory.org/

 

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