Petition calls on Sask. government to hire Black mental health therapists
Advocate also wants province to acknowledge systemic racism in mental health system
Latoya Reid says the death of George Floyd — along with retraumatizing posts, videos, newscasts and conversations about anti-Black racism — have led to sleepless nights.
She said it propelled her to seek mental health help in Regina. This in turn made her keenly aware of a gap in services in the province.
She says she was unable to find any Black counsellors or therapists in Saskatchewan.
For Reid, that means confiding in someone that doesn't, and will never, understand the racial and intergenerational trauma she faces as a Black woman from the Caribbean, a descendant of slaves who went through colonialism and someone who experiences racist microaggressions to this day.
She has started an online petition calling on the province to acknowledge systemic racism in the mental health system, hire more people of colour, provide specific treatments to people of different racial groups, and run mandatory training sessions on anti-racism and multiple ethnoracial perspectives.
"If you're constantly being told over and over and over again that your experiences do not matter you're not going to want to seek help for them if they're not being validated," she said.
NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon met Reid at one of the Black Lives Matter rallies in Regina and committed to helping her with the petition. He said she's exactly the kind of community leader the government should be in consultation with.
He said the rallies highlighted a call for change and that Reid has given the government a map.
"Here is a very practical path to make some change and do so in a way that will not just improve people's lives but to hopefully save people's lives," said Wotherspoon.
The NDP presented Reid's petition in the legislature Thursday.
'Right person, for the right job': says SHA
The Saskatchewan Health Authority does not have any mental health or addictions programs designed specifically for the Black community.
"Mental health and addictions services provided through the SHA are expected to be appropriate for anyone who accesses those services, regardless of cultural background," said the Ministry of Health in a statement emailed to CBC.
The government didn't make any commitments, but said it's interested in learning how to improve mental health and addictions services offered through the SHA.
The SHA's First Nation and Métis Relations offers culturally-responsive education opportunities to all SHA staff, with a focus primarily on but not limited to the experience of those two communities.
The SHA said it doesn't have an action plan to hire more Black workers, saying, "We are about the right person, for the right job, at the right time, with the right skills and demonstrating the right behaviours to service the people of Saskatchewan."
Reid said white therapists may empathize with Black patients, but they often hold the stereotype that everyone who is part of one racial group is the same. She said her own experience is far different from someone who moved to Canada from Africa.
"Yes, people will see us as Black and may direct oppression toward us based on the hue of our skin, but underneath it all there are different traumas that we respond to," she said.
Reid said people who are mixed race also have their own experiences, as do Black people with lighter skin tones.
She said those providing therapy have to understand the context of those experiences and not diminish or minimize their oppression because they don't share the same perspective.
She said one therapist she spoke to convinced her she was stressed out because she was being too hard on herself. Later, she realized it was the rest of the world that was making her feel pressure. For example, when she came to Canada, she was told she might fail in her career, which motivated her to graduate at the top of her class in social work.
"It's the society that tells me that unless I am twice better than my white allies, unless my resumé is packed, unless I have a masters in social work, unless I have a PhD, I'm not going to be seen," said Reid.
2 inquests into deaths of young Black people in Sask. this year
Reid said she wants interpreters in the health-care system for people who speak different languages. She is also calling for an advocacy group for Black people who go to the hospital, as there is for Indigenous people at RGH.
She said the deaths of Kaleab Schmidt and Samwel Uko prove that things need to change.
The SHA told Uko's uncle in a conference call that he visited the Regina General Hospital twice on May 21 for mental health help. The 20-year-old was escorted out the second time and was found dead in Wascana Lake a few hours later.
The province just announced it was launching an inquest into his death.
An inquest for Schmidt, who died by suicide on his family's farm near Balgonie in 2018 at the age 13, was held in March. The inquest heard that he was bullied repeatedly about being Black while attending Greenall High School.
Belan Tsegaye, who will be in Grade 12 next year at Miller Comprehensive High School in Regina, was Schmidt's best friend.
She said his death made her hit rock bottom.
"Kaleab's passing really affected me, like it took a very big toll on my mental health where I didn't even want to get up from bed anymore," said Tsegaye. "It just broke me into pieces I didn't think I could get back up from."
Friend of suicide victim wants more support in schools
Now, Tsegaye is an advocate for mental health support.
She said parents need to talk openly about mental health with their children, but that she thinks more conversations could be had at schools. She has been pushing for more support to be available.
She suggested mental health clubs, mental health groups separated by grade and mental health education for teachers so that they can spot warning signs and properly respond.
"We usually focus on drugs and alcohol, but sometimes people do drugs and alcohol to get away from mental health and that's just something we need to talk about," said Tsegaye.
"It seems to me that they only care when someone's gone, but they need to be here for us while we're still here."
WATCH: Belan Tsegaye speaks about mental health supports she wants to see in Sask.
The inquest into Schmidt's death called for the Prairie Valley School Division to re-evaluate school policies and anti-bullying efforts. The division recently acknowledged that no policy changes were made in response to the inquest, emphasizing that they were made earlier, after Schmidt's death.
Tsegaye said she's been called the n-word at school many times and has been asked if her clothes were stolen, if she made them out of cotton or if her dad left her. She said the only action that has been taken by teachers is the student gets a talking to.
She said it would help if there were more educators and guidance counsellors of colour.
"Speaking to a Caucasian person about our feelings and about the racism we go through, they can't say the same or they might not be able to relate to us," she said.
University student says many young Black people stigmatized
University of Regina student Damaris Fadare, 28, said she could've easily "slipped through the cracks" seven years ago during a mental health crisis.
She said there is a stigma in the Black community about speaking to counsellors or even the family doctor about mental health. She said she didn't know what she was experiencing and was fearful the doctor wouldn't understand or would think she wasn't normal.
She said most of her issues stem from racial trauma and intergenerational challenges, as is the case with many young Black people.
"When they face racial trauma and they can't talk about it, slowly down the road it manifests itself in a different way," she said. "They might have a mental health issue and just the stigma attached to coming out and approaching a medical professional or even saying the right word."
'You're being silenced'
When Fadare did seek help, she was happy and surprised when her doctor referred her to a Black psychiatrist who also immigrated from Nigeria.
She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and sent to a non-Black counsellor.
Fadare said people from the Black community who seek help often spend much of their time over-explaining and teaching the therapist about their experiences, rather than using it to unpack their trauma and get the needed support.
She said there isn't just a need for Black counsellors, but a need for counsellors with cultural awareness.
"We need to adopt policies that are unique to our needs," said Fadare. "There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to this."
Fadare said she is in a better place now and wants to speak out to reduce the stigma. She encourages other young Black people to seek medical help as soon as they need it and said it's also important to learn about mental health so that people can watch for symptoms in themselves and are better able to express what they need.
She also said people should try other doctors or counsellors if there's isn't the right fit.
Reid, who started the petition, said it's time for the health-care system to take accountability and make a change so that people like Schmidt and Uko aren't burdened with overcoming struggles on their own.
"If someone isn't seeing stuff from your perspective, over time...you're being silenced."
This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here.