8 Black Mental Health Pioneers

by Hannah Zwemer ❘  

Black History Month: Celebrating Black Scholars

Officially established in 1976, February as Black History Month recognizes and celebrates the lives, accomplishments, and contributions of Black lives and minds throughout the years. While certainly not exhaustive (nor fully extensive by any means), here is a list of Black scholars recognized as more or less pioneers in the fields of psychology, mental health, and addiction medicine.

Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD

Thought of as the “Father of Black Psychology,” Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD was the first Black man to earn a PhD in the field in the 1920s. Largely, his interests were in understanding the racial injustice and disparities and working toward educational equality. He was curious as to the way Black individuals were seen in the criminal justice system and the differences between races (specifically Black and White) in terms of mental health.

Dr. Sumner worked in multiple colleges and universities from Louisiana’s Southern University to West Virginia Collegiate Institute (presently West Virginia State College), but interested in improving conditions for Black Americans, accepted a position at Howard University in 1928. Like many other historically Black institutions at the time, the school’s philosophy department housed the psychology classes and Dr. Sumner firmly believed that psychology needed its own faction in order to properly train and educate the future of Black psychologists. A few years later, in 1930, Howard University established its psychology department and Dr. Sumner taught the next generation of Black scholars for 20 years.

Jacki McKinney, MSW

A founding member of the National People of Color Consumer/Survivor Network, Jacki McKinney earned an advanced degree in social work after persevering through numerous traumas in her own life. McKinney used her experience of feeling unheard and underrepresented in the mental health and addiction sector to become an advocate and voice for communities of Color. As a spokesperson, she worked to develop policies against seclusion and restraint (usually seen as a method of detainment for those suffering a mental breakdown), stood for intergenerational family support, and fought for the inclusion and prioritization of mental health care in minority populations. She received several awards and recognition throughout her life, the most notable of them, Mental Health America’s Clifford W. Beers Award which celebrates individuals with a fierce dedication to the overall improvement of widespread care, conditions, and awareness of mental health.

Dr. Altha J. Stewart, MD

In 2018, Dr. Altha J. Stewart became the first Black person and the fourth consecutive woman to lead the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Her career spans nearly 30 years across various sectors and institutions with a primary driving force throughout all: enhanced awareness and care for mental health in minority communities. A member of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Network to Eliminate Disparities in Behavioral Health (NNED) committee, Dr. Stewart and others work to address the mental health and substance use needs of racially and ethnically diverse communities. During her term as APA president, one of her primary goals was to increase the presence and accessibility of organized psychiatry as she believes there is a level of social responsibility to respond to and improve issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism that deeply affect the overall wellbeing of various demographics within the United States.

The recipient of numerous awards and holding a multitude of various titles throughout her life, Dr. Stewart currently teaches at the University of Tennessee and serves on the JED Advisory Board. The JED Foundation is a nonprofit organization that promotes emotional health and wellbeing and works to prevent suicide in young people, providing tools and coping mechanisms to endure life’s hardest moments.

Dr. Andrea G. Barthwell, MD

Recognized as one of the leaders in the addiction treatment field, Dr. Andrea G. Barthwell has taken care to blend research with practice, ensuring that those suffering from addiction feel seen, despite their illness. From practicing clinically to serving as the Deputy Director for Demand Reduction, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for President George W. Bush, Dr. Barthwell has a lifetime of experience advocating for communities struggling with addiction and abuse. She has integrated governmental policy with demonstrated community work in health care organizations and published her own research across a widespread assortment of journals.

After serving as president of the American Addiction Society of Medicine (ASAM) she was awarded Fellow status and has since developed and opened holistic treatment centers in several cities across the country. This list is hardly thorough; Dr. Barthwell has numerous other accomplishments and titles to her name and status further proving her admirable dedication to her field. Currently, Dr. Barthwell’s work is centered around expanding access to Opioid treatment and preventing substance use disorders in both individuals and families.

Dr. Gayle K. Porter, PsyD

A licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Gayle K. Porter’s work has primarily centered on “providing culturally competent information and training on effective and evidence-based interventions, models, materials, resources to reduce emotional and physical health disparities especially in relationship to minority children and adults.” Alongside Dr. Marilyn Gaston, MD, Dr. Porter co-founded The Gaston & Porter Health and Improvement Center which oversees programs such as the Prime-Time Sisters Circle, a curriculum geared toward middle-aged African-American women. Focusing on mental health and positive decision-making, research has shown that participants were able to manage high-risk health behaviors more effectively; the program has received multiple rewards. Dr. Porter is also a member of SAMHSA’s NNED, serving as a trainer and working to improve connections between underserved communities and quality health care.

Delbert Boone

Using his own experiences with Heroin addiction and incarceration, Delbert Boone has been recognized for his notable video contributions as well as his work with various institutions on implementing quality addiction and abuse treatment services. Primarily, his work lies in educating individuals on the intrinsic connection between substance abuse and criminal behavior and his informational videos have won him numerous Telly Awards. A certified substance abuse counselor, Boone speaks with candor and empathy and a deep sense of understanding of what it is like to suffer under the weight of a dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Dr. Howard C. Stevenson, PhD

A clinical psychologist, professor, and overall leader in the racial equity and emotional literacy field (with particular attention to education and literacy), Dr. Stevenson has developed and directed numerous projects and programs that teach children how to develop “healthy racial identities through racial stress management.” Dr. Stevenson is perhaps most widely recognized for his work in creating the Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth (PLAAY), a course that empowers youth and their families to mitigate the chronic stress and trauma widely impacting Black boys. Through basketball and “racial socialization,” PLAAY has aided in higher levels of school attendance, reduced suspensions, and overall improved relationships among African-American youth and their peers and teachers. Currently teaching graduate students in Pennsylvania, Dr. Stevenson continues to promote racial awareness and the importance of outreach and emphasized emotional education in underserved communities.

Dr. Lula A. Beatty, PhD

Once a leader in the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Dr. Lula Beatty’s work has largely centered around ensuring communities of Color receive quality education, care, and treatment, particularly regarding addiction and abuse. From encouraging underrepresented scholars’ participation in drug abuse related research to facilitating programs on strength and mental health awareness in Black families, Dr. Beatty has served on multiple committees and held many positions throughout her career. As the director of the Special Populations Office, Office of the Director at NIDA, her primary responsibilities included cultivating research on ethnic and minority communities as well as developing health disparities programs. She has also overseen projects such as the Diversity Supplement Program, a Historically Black Colleges and Universities Initiative, “an African-American initiative on HIV and criminal justice,” among others.

Leveling The Field

Without the brilliance, dedication, and efforts of these individuals (and numerous others), mental health care would likely look different, especially as it relates to communities of Color. In a field where People of Color are largely underrepresented, the work of these scientists is beginning to close the gap.

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One Final Note

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, abuse, or any other mental health crisis, there are resources to help you. Reach out to a treatment provider to find out more about your options for help and support. You are not in this alone.

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Hannah Zwemer

Photo of Hannah Zwemer
  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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