Since 2008, July has been recognized as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Mental Health Month. Created to highlight the unique mental health struggles of underrepresented groups, this month is an opportunity to have crucial conversations about the mental health needs of the BIPOC community, and CASA’s role in supporting the mental health of the children and families of color we serve.
This year’s theme is “Strength in Communities.”
We sat down with Stephanie Ritcherson, a licensed therapist and counselor with over a decade of experience working with children and families within the child welfare and juvenile justice system. Ritcherson was gracious enough to give us some insight into the model she uses to strengthen familial relationships and the mental health of the children and families she serves in the Travis County/Central Texas area.
Today, we’d like to share our conversation:
Can you speak a bit about yourself, your work, and the therapeutic models that you use?
"I was born and raised in Texas. In Austin, to be exact! I’ve been here decades and decades, so I’ve seen all the changes here. I grew up on the East Side, and of course, now it’s gentrified.
I went to school at Huston-Tillotson, which is a historically Black college and university, for my bachelor’s degree in Sociology. Then, I went to St. Edward’s for my master's in counseling. I’m an LPC, and I was just accepted into a Ph.D. program in California!
I’ve worked in the areas of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking for about 15 years. During that time, I’ve done work for SAFE, the County Attorney’s Office in Protective Orders, and currently, I’m a casework manager in the juvenile justice system.
I supervise a group of therapists, and we offer in-home family therapy. We use a specific model, which is called functional family therapy. This is different than other models because it’s more about the relationship between individual family members, as opposed to being about one individual."
Can you tell us a bit more about the clients you typically serve?
"Some have been in juvenile detention or have been in residential treatment centers and are being reunified with their families. We serve other children who have been in CPS placements. Usually, they’ve been involved with the juvenile justice system in some way for a client to then be under our supervision."
Do you find that the model of in-home family therapy seems to more easily build trust between therapists and clients?
"Yes, I do. In the office setting, you go in, you meet someone, and they're behind the desk. Whereas going into the home, the family must agree to let you inside. It puts the therapist at ease, and once the therapist is there, the model that we use has a phase where you’re working on the relationship with the family. You’re building rapport, trust, consistency, and communication.
The families become more relaxed, and they realize that this isn’t punitive: It’s to help your family and your relationship. It isn’t because you’ve done something bad and now, you’re being punished. This is the case a lot when kids are sent to a therapist or parents are told, 'you need to go here and do this therapy.'
With this model, families can see the benefits of therapy for themselves."
What are some unique mental health struggles faced by the BIPOC community, particularly for children of color?
"Racism, stereotyping, discrimination. I’m also the mother of two teenage boys, so personally, I’ve experienced that the consequences aren’t equal when a kid gets in trouble. When a child of color gets into a fight at school, they’re more likely to be expelled, as opposed to their white counterparts, who may be sent to counseling. I’ve seen those disparities firsthand.
Then we have economics. Many children of color come from single-parent homes, and mom typically works a lot. Single moms may not be able to be as present as they’d like, through no fault of theirs.
And that’s because historically, Black women have made less money. Any given day, when I look at the population in Juvenile probation, there is a huge disparity. I can count on one hand how many white kids we’ve had there, as opposed to Black and Brown children.
This is not because children of color commit more crimes. We know that. It’s the punishment, the tension, and the focus of the criminal justice system.
Also, counseling itself is not something that people of color usually go to as a resource. Family conflict is handled at home. If you say something, then you’re going to get the system involved, and once the system is involved, who knows when you’ll be set free from that system."
Have you noticed a shift in the kinds of mental health struggles clients are having amidst the pandemic and last year’s social unrest?
"I’ve seen a big shift in a couple of ways. For many of our families who were affected by COVID, their focus has had to become on basic needs, like food, shelter, and money. Therapy then takes a backseat, and we’ve had many families struggling during COVID. We’ve had to be very flexible about how often we were having sessions.
The protests and racial profiling seem to be constant. For mothers and caregivers, there’s anxiety around your child being, for instance, out past 10:00 pm. We know that if they’re a child of color, they’re more likely to get in trouble, or if they’re caught, they’ll be punished for what they’re doing.
I personally can relate to that as a mother. It’s just not fair out there, and so we feel that we need to be a little bit more cautious and protective."
Specifically in Austin, gentrification has caused communities of color to be pushed out of ancestral neighborhoods and to areas outside of the city. Is this something you see showing up in your work?
"I think a lot of what I see has to do with kids now being in more rural areas. They’re further out, and getting services is harder and limited by the resources that are in those areas. Travis County is a very large entity. However, if you have a family that can’t afford to live within the county’s city limits and they have to move out to Elgin or Bastrop, their resources become smaller, and with COVID, almost inaccessible.
I've been interested in doing a study on gentrification and the children of parents who lived in East Austin when it was still a predominantly Black community. I’d like to explore what happens to those children of adults who are pushed out into these smaller communities, where their community now becomes inconsistent and poor. Often, there’s not much to do, and these children might commit crimes like stealing cars, and then they end up in the system."
What role would you say generational trauma plays in your work? How do you see this show up for the children that you serve?
"Well, if you come from a family where domestic violence and sexual assault happened to your grandmother, then your parents, and then you witness that growing up without any kind of intervention, like therapy, then you can end up repeating those cycles.
The interesting thing about juvenile justice is that I've always felt that if we could get to a child’s family or guardians, whoever they’re going to live with, and insert some skills or coping strategies to change patterns, we’ll have better success of this kid not coming back into the system.
With family therapy in the home, all the kids in the home are exposed to therapy. So, it’s not just the child we’re specifically serving, but their siblings, their grandparents, uncle, etc. The whole family sees therapy and communication changing their home. That can influence the trajectory of someone’s childhood. Without that, cycles just repeat."
Can you give me an overview of why it’s important for children of color to have access to providers, volunteers, and other support from people that share their racial background?
"It’s important to work with someone who looks like you and has had some shared experience. Just because someone doesn’t look like you, that doesn’t mean that person can’t relate to you.
But I’ve seen kids get excited when they see me. When I worked in detention, I was the only counselor of color. They’d say, 'wow, I’ve never had a Black counselor.' Even with adults, they talk to you on the phone, they know they’re about to do counseling, and then you walk in the door or show up on the screen and they feel like, 'oh, you look like me!'
They know that I get it. Talking to a parent about the protests and how she was worried about her son, she was like, 'I know you get it.' I think that kind of vulnerability helps clients let down some of those walls. Not to say that every Black therapist is going to be a good fit for a Black family, but it does kind of give you that sigh of relief when you know the person may have a shared experience.
That comes from system after system that tells parents they’re bad parents, and that system is needed to teach them how to be parents. We’re not here to judge. That’s important in connecting, and in not creating that power dynamic where families are afraid they’ll be penalized."
Are there any common misconceptions you’ve heard from fellow providers or in the community about BIPOC mental health?
"I think one misconception is that people of color are more resilient or strong and don’t need as much help, or that they are help resistant. A lot of that is because of trust, comfort, and needing to relate with and be on the same page with the provider, which may take time.
I’ve heard providers say, 'oh, this mom is resistant, or cold, or rude.' And really, it’s fear and not knowing what to expect from the system because the system has done some things in the past. The walls come up and it’s misconstrued as being cold or uninterested, when really, it’s just fear.
Also, that Black and Brown kids are more violent. Their behaviors could be the result of fear, protection, or that they don’t know you and they don’t know what to expect. It’s self-preservation, which they’ve probably had to do most of their lives."
How do you feel we as a community, particularly in Central Texas/Travis County can best support the mental health of Black children and adults?
"I think by being patient and just realizing the importance of relating. We can’t expect people to be open to receiving help until trust and a relationship have been established.
We also have to be non-judgmental, and that can be kind of hard. We see things and might think, “well, if you would just do this, or if you had just done it this way, it would’ve worked out.” But we don’t know the circumstances, and we don’t know what was happening in a person’s life at any given time. I think that people do the best they can with what they have at that moment. We must realize that and be open, consistent, and trustworthy.
We also need to look at families and children individually. We can’t stereotype them or group them and say that we know them because we’ve served another family in a similar situation. Everyone is unique, and they all want to feel important. They are not just another family or just another kid."
In closing, Ritcherson highlights the importance of strengthening family relationships for the children she and CASA serve:
"I just think the importance of family cannot be stressed enough. Family is so important and so relevant when looking at kids. They didn’t come by who they are on their own. The only way that they can make a change is by addressing the family and the family’s needs, along with looking at the child’s individual needs.
These children have parents, uncles, friends, and grandparents, and everyone plays a role in their life.
Help the family, and you help the kid."
Here at CASA, we echo Ritcherson’s emphasis on the importance of family in a child’s life! At the beginning of each case, our Family Finding and Early Family Engagement teams work to identify family members for children, build connections, and foster these critical relationships.
In honor of BIPOC Mental Health Month, we hope more dedicated volunteers will join our community of advocates to help strengthen the mental health of the children and families we serve!
2021 July Advocacy