New patient inquiries have “skyrocketed” at Bridge Counseling and Wellness in Louisville the past several months, according to therapist and Bridge’s community outreach director Laurel Sims-Stewart.
“I think we’ve also seen a lot of my colleagues in the field, not just at Bridge, [that] their established clients have an increased need for more frequent appointments, or maybe people staying longer in therapy than they would have planned,” Sims-Stewart said.
Louisvillians are processing a lot right now as a result of a confluence of major events, including the global pandemic and being a national focal point of social activism in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death.
The totality of it all is taking a toll on residents’ mental well-being, in particular Black Louisvilians.
Sims-Stewart, who is white, said people are seeking mental health care to cope with the stress of losing jobs, losing loved ones or the fear of getting sick. Then, there’s the stress of seeing your community in the national news, and grappling with long simmering racial justice issues.
“Our brains aren’t wired to manage chronic stress in such a long term way,” she said. “We hit… our surge capacity after awhile, where our brain sort of runs out of energy to manage all the uncertainty.”
Sims-Stewart said people are feeling exhausted and discouraged. On top of all that, the pandemic has cut many off from friends and family. The outpatient practice is trying to fit in as many patients as possible and offering online yoga and meditation to help people cope.
Piling On Of Grief
For Louisvillians protesting and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, the past weeks have been grief piled upon grief.
On Sept. 23, demonstrators and community members gathered in Jefferson Square Park to hear the grand jury announcement in the case presented by Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office. No officers were charged in Taylor’s death. One, former Louisville Metro Police officer Brett Hankison, was indicted on multiple counts for endangering some of Taylor’s neighbors.
The news was met in the park with cries of anguish.
Clinical mental health counselor Darian Ferguson is part of a new Louisville grassroots group called Therapists for Protester Wellness, offering counseling, a crisis hotline, case management and referrals to additional resources.
Therapists for Protester Wellness formed earlier this summer shortly after a man shot and killed 27-year-old Tyler Gerth in Jefferson Square Park, a hub and gathering spot for the protests, Ferguson said. She and other mental health workers “got together to provide services for the protesters to keep them healthy.”
Protesters experienced trauma after Gerth’s death, she said. They’ve also been dealing with trauma related to encounters with police, the mental and physical drain of 130-plus days of protesting, and watching barricades go up around downtown last month in anticipation of the grand jury announcement.
“We’re seeing a constant increase, especially with our crisis line, a lot of people tend to reach out to the phone number and the crisis line after an event or something like that,” she said. She’s been at a number of the protests to get the word out about mental health care.
This is all even more stressful for people who are Black.
“I think a lot of people underestimate the magnitude of racism, specifically white people, because they can escape it, and they don’t realize how pervasive it is. Even our white allies,” Ferguson, who is Black, said. “I don’t have a space where I can go where I’m not going to be affected by my Blackness in a negative way.”
The death of Breonna Taylor, who police killed in her own home, has only amplified this for her.
“We’ve already known that the police can come into our house… But I think to see it play out, I know that’s personally been different from me,” she said, describing a feeling of “helplessness” that makes it difficult to cope.
Kalasia Ojeh, assistant professor of race and education in the University of Louisville’s Department of Pan-African Studies, said the courses she’s been teaching recently, “a graduate-level qualitative methodology” course and a two-semester course that begins with research methods, have a “focal point on police brutality, both locally and in the United States.” That’s been challenging for her students, many of whom are Black and are community organizers. When the grand jury announcement landed, it hit them hard.
“It’s been very tough to talk about these events that have occurred with Breonna Taylor and David McAtee. It [was] uncomfortable to hear the end result of Daniel Cameron’s investigation, in which class had to end early because students just cried,” Ojeh said. “Class should be an escape. Unfortunately, as a Black studies scholar, you don’t have that luxury… we’re studying it, we’re also experiencing it and having that lived experience.”
Right now, people are trying to navigate both individual trauma and communal trauma, another piling on, Ojeh said. And while police violence directed against Black people is not a new issue, with the deaths of Taylor and McAtee, who was shot and killed by law enforcement when Louisville Metro Police and National Guard officers showed up at his business in June, there is a sense of “it hitting closer to home.”
“It’s especially a shock to the system where it’s the people in their community,” she said, adding that the officers are also community members, who are supposed to protect and serve the community. Realizing that “safety net” is not there for everyone adds to the pain, she said.
“You have to respond and do something, whether that’s hitting the streets or being a part of something or donating to something in order to process that that could have been you,” Ojeh said.
Having the time and space to mourn and heal is yet another privilege that Black people don’t have, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Marissa Evans wrote in her Sept. 27 Atlantic magazine article with the headline, “The Relentlessness of Black Grief.”
“Grief in this country has always had an equity problem, and 2020 has only amplified the issue, as Black deaths have come in back-to-back blows, from the coronavirus, police brutality, and the natural deaths of those we look up to most,” she wrote. “Each new death, each new example of an old injustice, renews our grief, sending little shock waves of sorrow.”
Mental Health Care Inequities
Darian Ferguson, of Therapists for Protester Wellness, believes in therapy. But she said Black people and people of color might be skeptical of the mental health care system.
“When we talk about the stigma, especially Black people and people of color not being accepting to mental health services, it’s rightfully so in modern history,” she said.
The pandemic has laid bare the inequities within the U.S. healthcare system. Those exist in mental health services as well, Ferguson said, both in terms of access and in terms of the care itself.
She hopes to “change the face of mental health care.”
Bridge Counseling and Wellness’ Laurel Sims-Stewart said her organization is also trying to be a part of that change “so that it is not only a fit for white people who grew up in the Western world.”
“This can help people feel connected and cared for in the ways that matter and fit for them,” she said. “Therapy does not have to be a one size fits all.”
That includes having providers who understand the historical trauma of centuries of racial oppression.
Renee Campbell, an assistant clinical professor at the University Of Kentucky College Of Social Work, has more than 40 years of experience in social work.
“Even after the enslaved Africans were freed, quote, unquote, there were still systems that were put in place to try to keep them down, and that practice was passed on from generation to generation,” Campbell, who is Black, said.
She’s been reading “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem, which explores “the soul memory,” where grief and pain are essentially inherited.
“Those memories are in the bones, the blood, the cell memory of anybody that is a descendant of someone who was enslaved. And so then you have layers and layers and layers on top of the institutional racism that exists today.”
Campbell said it can be triggering when white people rely on Black people “to explain themselves regarding racism, or to justify their feelings on the issues of race.”
“We have to understand that discussions like that needs to be intentional and planned because the subject of racism is not just academic, it’s an emotional subject for Black people,” she said. “It has to be understood that the memories that we have are a part of our collective cell memory… as we begin to think about our grandmothers, our grandfathers, our [ancestors] who were mistreated, in many horrible ways.”
Yet Campbell has taken it upon herself to work through these kinds of conversations with white people. She’s been offering sessions over Zoom that dig into topics like the history and politics of race, as well as identifying personal biases.
In regards to Louisvillians’ mental health as they sort through so much, Campbell thinks now is the time to find a good therapist, to practice meditation, to have positive affirmations and to find hope in something.
“We need to have hope,” she said. “And I think it’s good to be around people that can also offer us hope.”
If you or a loved one need help, here are local mental health services:
The Couch: Louisville walk-in mental health care center
24-hour Hope Now Crisis Hotline: 502-589-4313
To speak with a therapist from Therapists For Protestor Wellness, text wellnesslou to 31996; to reach someone by phone, call 502-414-5205