Black Pioneers in the Field of Mental Health

For too long, black scientists’ contributions to the field of mental health have been overlooked and minimized. It is vital to treat everyone equally and to showcase all achievements. Here, we take a look at several of the most influential black pioneers in mental health. 

Joseph L White, PhD

Known as the “father of black psychology”, White was born in 1932 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He obtained his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Michigan State University. 

Most of White’s career was spent at the University of California and he has held titles including Researcher, Dean and Consultant at a variety of locations around the US. 

White was instrumental in founding the Educational Opportunity Programme that provided educational access and opportunity for low- income students within California, with the majority of them being the first generation in their family to attend college. White assisted in the success of many students who were of colour and worked as an advocate to restructure the education system, this led to him co-founding the Association of Black psychologists in 1968.

In 1970, the publication of “Toward a Black psychology” for Ebony magazine contributed to the modified perception of black psychology. It was credited as being the first ever positive and strength-based evaluation and account of black behaviour as well as culture. This article showcased the unique variances of how ethnic minorities should be treated in psychology. It claimed that whatever the future of race relations and the destiny of black people, the creation of a black psychology was essential as the psychology formed by White people could never effectively apply to African Americans. The article went on further to point out that the presentation of conventional White psychology to black people resulted in weakness-oriented deficit finding, as opposed to an accurate consideration of the situation of people of African descent. 

White was the recipient of several prestigious awards including the honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Minnesota in 2007, Citation of Achievement in Psychology and Alumnus of the Year from San Francisco State University in 2008.

Bebe Moore Campbell 

An American teacher, author and mental health advocate, Campbell worked diligently to spread light on the mental health needs of the black community. The founder of NAMI (national alliance on mental health) she worked to provide a safe space for black people to converse about mental health struggles.  

As an author, Campbell’s fictional work described the devastating impact of racism on her community. Her novel ‘Your Blues Ain’t Like mine’ inspired by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, was described as one of the most influential books of 1992 by the New York Times Magazine. Campbell’s advocacy for mental health provided the catalyst for her first children’s book called: “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry”, The book, depicting a young girl coping with her mother’s mental illness, won the NAMI outstanding literature award.

As an advocate, Campbell travelled to DC in 2008 and congress formally recognised Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to bring an understanding of the mental health concerns that underrepresented communities had in the US.

Herman George Canady, PhD

Herman George Canady, PhD, was a clinical and social psychologist. He is known for being the first psychologist to explore the impact of bias in IQ tests, as was the subject of his master’s thesis “The Effects of Rapport on the IQ: A Study in Racial Psychology”.

He addressed the effect of the race of the examiner on students taking I.Q. tests and probed the reliability of these tests given to black children by white examiners. It was hypothesized that there would be significant differences between the I.Q. scores of black children tested by a white examiner as opposed to a black examiner. Although Canady’s study resulted in no significant differences in I.Q., it initiated further studies that investigated the effects of the race of the examiner on the result of the individual taking the test. 

During his career Canady succeeded the position of Francis Sumner, the first black person to obtain a PhD degree in psychology as chair of the Psychology Department at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. He was chosen as the diplomate of the American Board of Examiners in Professional Psychology and played an essential role in establishing the West Virginia State Board of Psychological Examiners, the West Virginia Psychological Association and the Charleston (West Virginia) Guidance Clinic. Canady was also a member of the American Teachers Association, an association formed due to the National Educations Association’s discriminatory ban on black teachers. 

Canady received a variety of honours during his career including the North-Western University Alumni Merit Award and the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Middle Eastern Provincial Achievement Award. His work enabled black psychologists to be accepted into society and therefore facilitated the progress of the way that black psychologists are treated today.

These individuals are only a few of the pioneers that paved the way for black individuals in the field of mental health. Their accomplishments helped raise awareness of the struggles of minority groups and promoted better accessibility to mental health services for all.