Canada needs more Black psychologists

Meghan Stewart

Meghan Stewart has dealt with mental health challenges since childhood. There have even been moments where she considered suicide.

“I have had those moments where it’s … ‘Well, I wonder if anybody would even notice if I was not on this Earth anymore,'” Stewart said.

Stewart began seeking help about 10 years ago, when she was living in Toronto. As a Black woman, she said it was important to find a mental health professional who was also Black.

“It really comes down to belonging and that deep connection that we all need as human beings,” Stewart said. “My therapist could relate race to trauma, or trauma that was from racist experiences or discriminatory experiences.”

According to a 2020 study by Ottawa Public Health, which surveyed and interviewed 130 members of the city’s Black population, more than one-third of those surveyed had tried to access mental health services on behalf of themselves or others.

Of those who have sought help, the report found a large proportion felt “prejudice or a negative attitude” from doctors or mental health workers who don’t look like them or understand their lived experience.

Glory Mulera

It’s a problem that advocates for Black mental health and wellness have been flagging for years: There are not enough racially diverse professionals in the field to meet the needs of people of colour.

The shortage is felt most acutely in the field of psychology, according to Ottawa-based psychotherapist Kafui Sawyer.

“We’re in a mental health crisis in Canada,” Sawyer said. “Most of the people suffering are racialized people, and these racialized people are not getting the help they need from people who understand them and have the lived experience.”

Unlike counsellors and therapists, psychologists undergo more education and have the authority to diagnose patients.

In her 12 years working in psychotherapy, Sawyer has met only a handful of other Black people working in the profession, compared to meeting hundreds of white colleagues. The number of Indigenous psychologists is even fewer.

“There are so many Black lawyers. I know there are so many Black doctors. I know there are so many Black accountants. I know most professions are diversified in terms of race,” she said. “But when it comes to the profession of psychology, it’s very rare.”

Dr. Helen Ofosu, also based in Ottawa, has worked as a psychologist for more than 20 years. She said she has met only one other working Black psychologist during her career and just a handful of others working in related fields.

Helen Ofosu and Kafui Sawyer

Monnica Williams is the Canada Research Chair for mental health disparities at the University of Ottawa’s school of psychology. She said it’s difficult to determine exactly how many Black and Indigenous psychologists are in Canada because that information isn’t tracked by the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). But she said “the numbers are abysmally low.”

“We know that there are not nearly representative numbers of psychologists of colour in the field, and definitely not enough to meet the needs of communities of colour,” Williams said.

Sawyer, Ofosu and Williams all say the problem lies in the accreditation process for psychological professionals.

To become an accredited psychologist in Canada, students need to be accepted into a graduate program at a post-secondary institution or an internship program. Getting into a program depends on having a faculty member agree to be their supervisor — a requirement that Sawyer said is problematic.

“Faculty is predominantly white and the students they’re recruiting or the students they have in [their] program are also predominantly white,” she said. “The accreditation process is actually racist.”

Sawyer said she herself was rejected from McGill University’s program and instead attended a private university in British Columbia. Williams went to school in the United States and Ofosu’s parents were academics, which helped her get into a program.

The biggest frustration is how much more it costs to attend a private university, Mulera said, sometimes up to $45,000 for a two-year master’s program.