Growing up in the African American community in Chicago, it was a lot more common for the people I knew to try to pray away stress, anxiety, and pain than to seek help from a therapist. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I felt it was okay to go to therapy. After achieving this insight personally, it became vital for me to share it with others. I earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, ultimately getting my clinical license in social work, but the big question I needed to address was — how could I take the shunned concept of therapy and make it more accepted?
The answer was to make it as easy as possible for those seeking help to find it and to provide that help in a safe, comfortable space.
This is my journey on the path to a 100% Telehealth practice and to lessen the stigma of therapy in the black community.
Beginning in the field
Working for both a hospital and government system, I always felt restricted and boxed in by all the red tape. It wasn’t always the most comfortable for me or in the best interest of the clients served. So, I decided to start my own private practice with the goal of loosening the restrictions and increasing access to care because historically, it was difficult to get people who really could benefit to utilize therapy. I asked myself, “How do I make this more attractive to the clientele that I like to work with?”
Understanding the stigma of mental health
When we’re going through school and training to be a social worker or therapist, we’re told not to disclose too much about ourselves and to restrict vulnerability. Aspects of this are very understandable; however, I think the tide is changing. We have come to a time now where we have to tell our stories, so people can understand that they’re not alone and that professionals aren’t perfect. That vulnerability creates trust and trust is integral to the healing process.
It wasn’t until sometime last year that I started to be more open about my own story. Not in therapy sessions because that should only be if it’s to the benefit of the client, but within my community, during workshops, and at speaking engagements.
I am more open now that my mom was addicted to drugs the first eighteen years of my life, my dad was murdered when I was seven, I was adopted as a child, and I witnessed my mom be a victim of domestic violence. My mom successfully completed rehab the summer before I went away to college and we experienced significant transitions in different ways. As I entered adulthood, she was essentially learning to live a healthy and sober life.
Being aware of these life circumstances at such a young age affected me in a way I wouldn’t understand for many years. I didn’t realize what those distressing feelings and emotions were that I felt because I was told to just pray about; which is traditionally common in communities of color. Just pray about it, and it’ll be all okay, but where does that leave you emotionally and spiritually when everything isn’t just ok?
I didn’t learn what depression, anxiety, and trauma really were until I was in college studying social work. That’s when I started to identify all those feelings I was experiencing weren’t “just pray about it” moments. Those were real effects of trauma that have an array of treatment interventions and approaches; and I now advocate for spirituality being an effective component for coping, if desired by the client.
The stigma is a part of our culture in black communities, and it’s still very high and deeply ingrained. Due to history, there is a distrust in outsiders, and there is a large familial unit dependency to solve problems. I will say, I feel we are doing a better job on a national level of being more open and honest and talking about mental health. The progress is slow, but it helps to bridge the gap.
Reducing stigma and providing mental health support to teens and adults during challenging transition periods are key objectives of my practice. It’s evident that these two components were huge parts of my personal story that are rooted in my purpose to serve.
Building trust and understanding to reduce the established stigma was half of the equation. Addressing the traditional location of therapy was next, and that’s where Telehealth came in.
Bringing therapy to clients
I was very excited when I became aware that merging tech and mental health was an existing treatment approach, and I started researching it quite extensively. The Department of Psychiatry at Washington University here in St. Louis are major contributors to the research that showed video conferencing is just as effective as in-person therapy for certain clients. Information online was accessible, and I quickly became comfortable with this delivery modality.
I decided to open a 100% online therapy practice, to be more accessible to young adults and decrease stigma. I wanted to make sure I was competent in the treatment delivery modality. I also felt it necessary for people to trust that I knew what I was doing. The first certification I received was the Distance Credentialed Counselor (DCC). Last August, the DCC was phased out and replaced with the Board Certified Telehealth Provider (BC-TMH) credential.
Once I launched my practice, and it got more recognition as the only private practice in the area providing Telehealth, people were drawn to me as a local expert. I’m very clear with people that Telehealth is just the delivery method — you still have to have all the training and skills to go along with it. I use very traditional evidence-based treatment methods. I heavily utilize CBT, TF-CBT, and Brief Solution-Focused Therapy.
With Telehealth, we help bridge a gap by bringing wellness to the client in their natural environment. Whether that’s from the comfort of their home, dorm room, job, car, or wherever they feel is safe and confidential. I can attest this treatment method makes treatment easier to access and more flexible as well. If I’m a busy parent with limited time, childcare, or issues with transportation, I don’t have to worry about any of those things when I can still get the support that I need from wherever I am.
I provide a lot of community-based workshops centered on mental health education as well. It helps to normalize the conversation once participants learn that diagnoses like depression and anxiety are not these huge scary things; if you experience symptoms, there’s help out there in your place of comfort. When people realize this, their response is usually, “Okay, how do I sign up?”
It’s been exciting to see an expansion of the “life transitions” people seek us out to support them through. Those now range from new parents and newlyweds, to empty nesters and retirees who are appreciative of the ability to integrate counseling seamlessly into their schedule and environments.
Advice on running a business
As service providers, we carry a lot of responsibility, worry, and stress. Running a business is not easy, and compassion fatigue and burnout are real. In conversation with other professionals, I hear a lot of anxiety and perfectionism. The Impostor Syndrome surfaces at the most inconvenient times, and we question, Why me? Do I deserve to be in this space? Am I doing everything well enough?
When we see others make positive strides professionally, we assume it’s because they’re fearless. This simplistic messaging of “just be fearless” and “just go for it” is entirely unrealistic. It keeps us in that constant cycle of anxiety and fear. My advice is not to believe the hype. It’s not about being fearless. I absolutely think it’s about having the fear and learning how to work with the fear to still reach your goals. Embrace fear, learn how to make it work for you, and be kind to yourself every step of the way.
Goal Driven Counseling is a group private practice where our mission is to support teens and adults who are experiencing challenging education, career, and life transitions completely online through secure video conferencing. We fulfill our mission through individual counseling as well as community-based workshops on various mental health topics. All levels of college students are a huge focus for us. The transition to and persisting through college has different levels and layers of challenges. People assume that when you do well academically, that you’re doing well overall and that’s not true. Statistics have shown that college students are struggling with the highest levels of anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, and chronic stress. Due to this, I developed the Goal Driven College Tour; on-site educational workshops designed to promote mental and emotional readiness for college-bound and current college students as they persist towards their post-secondary goals.
Find Melissa’s CE course, Telehealth: Getting Started, at SimplePractice Learning
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