“What field can be more anti-racist than psychology? We are here to promote human beings, human development, and human well-being! There is no field that can address racial issues better than psychology.”
Dr. Jude Mary Cénat is passionate about making psychology anti-racist, and inviting his colleagues in the mental health field to join the movement. Dr. Cénat is an Associate Professor in the school of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, the director of the Vulnerability, Trauma, Resilience and Culture Research Laboratory (V-TRaC Lab), and the director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Black Health.
The V-TRaC Lab has three axes. The first is working on family, social, and cultural aspects of trauma and resilience. The second axis is global mental health – the lab has a project on different countries in Africa to document mental health problems related to infectious diseases like the Ebola virus and COVID-19. This axis also looks at gender-based violence and mental health in the Caribbean. The third concerns racial disparities in health and social services.
“We have some projects on Black mental health, and we conducted the first survey on Black mental health in Canada, as part of a major project funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada to document Black mental health and to develop and implement programs related to that. We are looking at the over-representation of Black children in the child welfare system to try to understand all the factors that create that situation and propose solutions.” In December 2021, The V-TRaC Lab revealed 13 recommendations to reduce the over-representation of Black children in the Child welfare system.
Involvement with child welfare is the number one predictor of youth ending up homeless, as well as for a multitude of other problems later on such as poverty and poor education. The over-representation of Black youth in that system means that they experience those outcomes more often than other groups, leading to a perpetual cycle
“The first factor is that professionals in the child welfare system are not trained to take into account the cultural aspects of Black families. We gather a lot of focus groups with stakeholders, and one of the things they point out is that they’re not trained enough to address cultural issues. We conducted a study that showed that more than 48% of social work programs in Universities and colleges in Ontario did not have a mandatory culture related course in 2020. There are also systemic factors such as poverty related to Black communities, and racial discrimination experienced by many in the child welfare system.
But it’s not just the child welfare system itself, it’s also the larger society. In schools, for example, teachers are more likely to call childrens’ protection services for an issue with a Black kid than they are with a white one. In Canada we have a ‘colourblind’ society, where we say ‘I don’t see your skin colour, I see your problems and I try to address those’. When you have a child with a problem in school, you can call the parents to address that. But often for white kids, teachers will address a problem directly with the parents, whereas they might call child welfare directly for a Black child.”
The idea of a ‘colourblind’ society is akin to having a ‘non-racist’ society. It is a passive way to approach race, where just not laughing at the racist joke, or not participating in a discriminatory hiring practice, is enough. But this does not go far enough in terms of redressing the racial inequities that already exist. Dr. Cénat hopes we can move beyond ‘non-racist’ and ‘colourblind’ to becoming a truly anti-racist society in Canada.
“As Ibram Kendi said, there is no ‘racist’ and ‘non-racist’. There is ‘racist’ and ‘anti-racist’. Because if you are just ‘non-racist’, you can see someone be racist, and you can satisfy yourself by telling yourself you’re not a part of it. You haven’t taken an action that can push back against racism. And only by taking action against racism can we create an anti-racist society.”
It is with this ethos in mind that Dr. Cénat and his team have created the course ‘How To Provide Antiracist Mental Health Care’, approved for Continuing Education credits by the CPA. If mental health practitioners, academics in higher learning institutions, and leaders across the country can embrace the principals of anti-racism, then we can truly start to move toward an inclusive Canada where everyone feels welcome, discrimination and profiling are not tolerated, and all of us share in the same opportunities on a level playing field.
Dr. Cénat published an article in The Lancet where he explained that anti-racist mental health care is proactive – in the sense that it addresses racial issues without waiting for clients or patients to bring these issues forward. Anti-racist care goes beyond cross-cultural care. It incorporates both cultural aspects and elements that provide a way to account for the damage caused by racial discrimination, racial profiling, and racial microaggressions. It is a way to create spaces in a society free of racism.
“The problem with the ‘colourblind’ approach is this. You might have someone in your office who is Black, but you say ‘I don’t see his skin colour, I assess him and provide care without seeing his skin colour.’ But the fact is that his skin colour might be a part of his problem. You might have a Black man who’s depressed, and one of the factors which explains that depression is the racial discrimination he experiences at work. Or because his children are experiencing discrimination and he does not have enough power to stand up for his children and that reminds him of the fact that as a kid he experienced the same discrimination from other children and teachers. When you say you don’t see his skin colour, you are not addressing his problem, because the colour of his skin is very much part of his problem.”
This is not just a hypothetical situation that might confront a mental health professional, it is backed up by data. Dr. Cénat’s team published an article that shows Black Canadians between the ages of 15-40 who experience high levels of racial discrimination are thirty-six times more likely to present with severe symptoms of depression than those who experience lower levels of discrimination.
“If you receive someone from the Black communities with depressive symptoms, you have to ask them about their experience with racial discrimination and trauma. So that is what our training ‘how to provide anti-racist mental health care’ provides to clinicians. To know how they can first learn about themselves and their own biases, then also how they can assess racial issues and trauma in a clinical practice. And how they can provide anti-racist care to children, adolescents, and families.”
From October 26-28 this year, Dr. Cénat and his team will be organizing the first conference dedicated solely to Black mental health. It will be called “Black Mental Health in Canada: Overcoming Obstacles, Bridging the Gap”. As Dr. Cénat says, no profession has greater tools to address racism than does psychology. And he’s committed to putting as many tools in that toolbox as he can.