Black Mental Health Connections: Fostering Cultural Competence in Psychiatry

Alliance Takes Action Against Montreal’s Shortage of Black Psychiatrists

BMHC members take part in the organization’s Black Joy Sundays program. Courtesy Ashley Merveille

In February 2013, a small group of Black social workers came together after attending a Black History Month event at McGill University. 

Recognizing a great lack in mental health programs catering to the Black anglophone community of Montreal, they felt eager to tackle the issue. Shortly after, Black Mental Health Connections was born.

BMHC is an alliance of organizations and individuals aimed at providing mental health programming and resources to young adults in Montreal’s English-speaking Black community. 

The organization works in collaboration with members of the Black community who derive from all different walks of life, experiences and academic levels, offering various forms of support systems to those involved. 

Aishah Seivwright, co-director and program coordinator of BMHC, explained how Black anglophones in Quebec face multiple layers of discrimination. “When you're Black, you’re marginalized racially, but being an anglophone in Montreal, in Quebec, then you’re marginalized by your language,” she said. 

Seivwright made reference to the province’s strict laws implemented to protect the French language, which can affect anglophones’ employment opportunities and access to services, such as psychiatric care. These barriers create an arduous process for Black community members in search of mental health services. 

Through their programs, BMHC hopes to break down some of these barriers. They explore how mental health circumstances and issues vary for Black people and discuss ways to improve on cultural competence for those within the community.

As defined by BMHC, cultural competence is “providing knowledge and awareness with humility, by respecting cultural diversity across the many intersections and aspects of identity.”

“I want to ensure that I can help create the support that I needed when I was managing my mental health journey.” — Aishah Seivwright

BMHC Administrative Coordinator Kristen Young discussed the organization’s initiatives on bringing forth a stigma-free and culturally competent environment for all their members. 

“Our mission is to use our collective experiences to empower members of the Black community. We are breaking mental health barriers and promoting healing through culturally competent education and innovative community care,” Young said. “We hope to do this in an anti-oppressive, non-hierarchical way that sparks bottom-up change.”

She emphasized the various difficulties in seeking therapy from a Black professional.

“There’s an assumption that ‘Black’ means the same thing for everyone, and it doesn’t,” Young said. “Finding someone who is Black is really hard and then finding someone who is Black and understands or sees your intersections is even harder.”

This issue of cultural disconnect is common when seeking mental health support professionally, as Black people can identify with multiple ethnic or ancestral origins, explained Young.

Seivwright further expressed the exhaustion often felt by Black patients who experience a culturally incompetent psychiatrist. 

“Not having that kind of cultural competence when you go to seek care, it creates more labour for the patient or the client because then you have to explain your lived experience in the hopes that someone will understand it enough to contextualize your mental health, to offer you the specific and knowledgeable support and advice,” said Seivwright.

Given that there is such a small number of registered Black psychiatrists in Montreal, Young pointed out the high demand for them. She explained that this can initiate burnout for them and long wait lists for patients.

BMHC Montreal has been operating for 10 years. Courtesy Aishah Seivwright

BMHC often works with The Lavender Collective, a Black-run initiative aiming to provide mental health resources and professionals to BIPOC communities in Montreal. The collective’s website provides a list of BIPOC mental health professionals in the city. While the list contains 52 members, only 26 are Black. 

“But a lot of the folks on that list have wait lists that are really long,” said Young, “so there is no guarantee that you will call someone on that list and they will be available to see you.”

Psychiatric services are also a financial restraint to many within the Black community, an issue BMHC tackles through their grant funding.

As the alliance’s programming runs entirely on grants, most of their programs—such as the Peer Support Program and Black Joy Sundays—are only launched if they have the financial means to cover them fully. 

The alliance aims to make their programming and events as accessible as possible, offering vegan food options to attendees and covering their public transportation fees. 

BMHC’s Peer Support Program received $15,000 from the Ongoing Connections Grant, a continuous funding program by the SHIFT Centre for Social Transformation at Concordia. The free 12-week program, is hosted by a facilitator and active listener who welcomes Black members from the community to gather for weekly therapy sessions.

“The hope is to bring the community together to let everyone know that it's safe to express your vulnerability, that you can care for each other in a way that’s healing,” said Seivwright.

BMHC is also involved in Concordia’s Black Perspectives Office. As of August 2022, they have been training student ambassadors with wellness skills to improve on active listening. They also cover the core values and competencies of Peer Support Canada.

“In our own healing and mental health management journeys, we’ve all experienced a lack of support, a lack of resources and discrimination.” — Kristen Young

In collaboration with DESTA, the Black community network, BMHC has created Black Joy Sundays, a monthly community gathering that provides mental health resources and social activities to local members.

BMHC’s non-hierarchical structure consists of three membership stages, depending on one’s level of involvement. It currently consists of 57 community members, 16 being active voting members of the alliance. 

Community members stay in the loop of BMHC’s information and contribute to events and services. Voting members attend a monthly meeting to consult and validate the resources, and volunteer up to five hours a month. Active members also take part in the voting process of BMHC. They meet minimally twice a month, but are responsible for the execution of the events and devote up to 10 hours or more weekly.

Young shared how to be a part of BMHC’s member hub. The alliance’s newsletter can be found under the “Get Involved” tab of their website.

“I think every member of BMHC is someone who is impassioned to tackle mental health in the Black community because in our own healing and mental health management journeys, we’ve all experienced a lack of support, a lack of resources and discrimination,” said Young.

Young and Steivwright are two of many BMHC members giving back to the Black community in ways they never felt before—and it's healing for them.

“I’m sure there are millions of others like me who need this support,” said Seivwright. “I want to ensure that I can help create the support that I needed when I was managing my mental health journey.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 12, published February 21, 2023.