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By Maya Pottiger for Word in Black

Spend some time online and it might start to seem like everyone talks to a psychologist or therapist — especially with the new surge of app-based doctors making it easier to fit appointments into your schedule.

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As always, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. Though things are getting better, psychology and mental health are still taboo topics or surrounded by skepticism in Black and Brown communities. 

The main solution? Earlier exposure.

Men of all races and ethnicities are missing from the psychology field in general, and especially so in school psychology. Women are school psychologists at a rate more than 600% higher than men, according to the National Association of School Psychologists’ 2020 member survey. 

But for boys in school — especially Black boys — that representation might be nonexistent. The 2020 NASP survey found that only 4% of full-time school psychologists were Black in 2020, compared to 86% white.

Representation is about more than “putting the face in the place,” says Kendell Kelly, a doctoral student in the School Psychology Program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. Kelly’s research focuses on the impact of race-related stress of Black male students, as well as the role of Black male school psychologists. And representations about relatability and advocacy, too.

“It’s very important to have somebody who sits at the table, the decision-making table, to be able to relate,” Kelly says. “You can’t talk about mental health without talking about culture and context.”

How Do We Get More Black Men to Become School Psychologists?

By high school, when psychology courses might, depending on the district, be made available to students, it’s often too late to interest Black males in the field. 

At that point, with college coming up, they already have a “pretty good idea” of what career they want to pursue, Kelly says. The field needs to be integrated into middle school routines because, Kelly points out, some students even decide which high school they go to based on their career aspirations.

“Show them the field, and show them certain things that they might be interested in to get them interested in the field, whether it’s on a teacher track or psychology track.”

Psychology, No Matter the Focus, Is Dominated By Women

No matter the race or ethnicity, women are psychologists — of all types — at around double the rate of men, according to Census Bureau data from 2018. Of the 5% of Black people who were psychologists in 2018, women accounted for 4% of that, and men accounted for the remaining 1%.

Industrial and organizational psychology tend to be more popular among Black men, says Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, perhaps because of the higher salaries due to working within a business context.

But, he says, traditional gender roles might be affecting the industry.

“Most people think of psychology as being a profession where you’re helping people address their problems,” Cokley says. “Maybe it’s just part of the gender socialization that oftentimes women are helping and being caretakers.”

Though the focus is on how few Black men are in the field, says Dr. Celeste Malone, the president-elect of the National Association for School Psychologists, it’s important to consider the experiences of Black girls: they are suspended at higher rates than any other group of girls in schools, and at higher rates than all boys, except Black boys.

“While Black boys numerically are suspended more frequently, Black girls have higher odds of being suspended,” Malone says. “Thinking about the intersectional experiences they have of racism and sexism, that impacts their pre-K through 12 experience and certainly their experience of getting into the field.”

In School Settings, Black Men Are Often Seen as Disciplinarians

Representation matters everywhere, and when there aren’t Black men in school psychology roles, the effects spread around.

In general, Black men who are K-12 educators also tend to be used as a disciplinary presence at school sites. This takes the focus away from their actual jobs: delivering academic content and supporting student learning.

With the overall lack of visibility in Black men in school psychology, “kids may see the profession in a particular light and not necessarily for what it can or should be,” Malone says.

“If they see school psychologists are the ones calling their friends out of classrooms to go get tested, and then they go into special education or for discipline, they may not necessarily see school psychologists in a helping role,” Malone says.

But there is hope that things could change. After all, even Nickelodeon is making sure kids know the importance of addressing their mental health. 

In a recent video, cast members of “That Girl Lay Lay” — which stars NAACP Image Award nominated teen hip-hop artist Alaya “That Girl Lay Lay” High —  talk about how people focus on their physical health but don’t think about mental health in the same way. Toward the end of the video, Lay Lay says she’s going to try therapy. She’s reminded that “nothing has to be wrong” to validate talking to a therapist.

Whether clips like that will get Black youths interested in the field or not, Cokley says the Black community has been paying increased attention to mental health, which can be traced back to openness from celebrities and a younger generation more willing to talk about it. 

It could be a turning point for the Black community’s — Black men, specifically — relationship with mental health. And that could lead to more Black school psychologists for future generations.