Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Reflections: Black Pioneers in Mental Health

Today is February 2022’s last Friday. Before March comes barreling in like a lion, I’d like to acknowledge that February is Black History Month, with this year’s focus being “Black Health and Wellness.” The Black American community experiences profound systemic health inequalities, which is reflected in elevated rates of mental illness compared to other segments of our population. The pandemic has only flamed the fire.

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An essential, but often overlooked, part of this public health story is the role of Black American pioneers in mental health. Nicole Archibald, Program Coordinator for our Columbia-WHO Center for Global Mental Health, is a trailblazer herself. A tireless advocate for social justice and health equity, she conceived of this post and worked with me to shine a light on the following five Black American leaders whose contributions to advancing mental health deserve to be celebrated.

1. Herman George Canady, PhD (1901 – 1970). Born in Oklahoma, Herman George Canady thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister when he enrolled at Northwestern University Theological School. But his sociology and psychology classes captured his imagination. Before long, he was on his way toward earning a PhD in the field. Dr. Canady was a pioneer in studying racial bias in IQ testing. One of his most influential works was a study entitled, “The Effect of ‘Rapport’ on the I.Q.: A New Approach to the Problem of Racial Psychology.” His research demonstrated the effect of the examiner’s race on subjects taking I.Q tests. Dr. Canady helped establish the West Virginia Psychological Association and the West Virginia State Board of Psychologist Examiners and served as an expert witness for the NAACP in segregation and employment discrimination cases. In 1968, he retired from West Virginia State University after a forty-year tenure as chair of the psychology department.

2. Beverly Greene, PhD (born 1950). St. John’s University Professor Beverly Greene is a pioneer in the psychological study of the intersectionality of sexism and racism. She is the author of the revolutionary article, “When the Therapist is White, and the Patient is Black: Considerations for Psychotherapy in the Feminist Heterosexual and Lesbian Communities.” She has studied the experience of privilege, oppression, and mental health and asserts that racism is a form of trauma warranting particular attention in therapy. She was among the first clinicians to focus on the importance of cultural competence training for therapists. In 2008, Dr. Greene earned the Distinguished Publication Award from the Association of Women in Psychology.

3. Maxie Clarence Maultsby, Jr., MD (1932 – 2016). Maxie Clarence Maultsby earned his MD from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. He worked around the country with a commitment to developing classroom environments that were good for students’ emotional health. Dr. Maultsby developed Rational Behavior Therapy, which helps clients define for themselves what constitutes healthy thinking and then coaches them to become their own therapists. He worked with Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and in 1974 co-published with him the Technique for Using Rational Emotive Imagery. He served as professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Howard University and had a significant following as a psychiatrist in not only the United States, but also in South Africa, Finland and Poland. Dr. Maultsby was Elected Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists.

4. Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD (birth year unknown – 1934). Inez Beverly Prosser is recognized as the first Black woman to earn a psychology doctoral degree in the United States. It was not easy getting there. She had ten siblings, and her older brother was the one destined for college. Fortunately for Inez, he was not interested in school, so she went instead. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1937. Her dissertation, “The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools,” examined the impact of racism and inequality on the development of Black children’s identity and mental health. In her study, Black children who attended racially integrated schools experienced more social maladjustment, lower levels of security in social relationships, and diminished satisfaction in family relationships. Recognizing that racism was at the root of these differences, she was a lone voice advocating for segregated schools until a time when prejudicial treatment of Black students was a thing of the past. Still waiting. She died only one year after completing her doctoral degree.

5. Joseph L. White, PhD (1932 – 2017). Dr. White’s groundbreaking research was key to developing more culturally informed psychology, and he is recognized as one of the “fathers of Black psychology.” He earned his PhD in clinical psychology from Michigan State University, where he focused on the urgent issues of educational reform. In his article, “Toward a Black Psychology,” he mapped out why mainstream psychology developed by White people failed to serve the mental health needs of Black Americans. Dr. White advocated for increased representation of Black clinicians in the American Psychological Association and in 1968, was one of the founders of the Association of Black Psychologists.

The mental health disparities among Black Americans are a result of multiple factors, including lack of trust in the health system stemming from historical oppression and abuses, intergenerational trauma, stigma surrounding mental illness, lack of culturally responsive mental health providers, less access to mental health care, and racism experienced by Black Americans on both structural and individual levels. Nicole is “forever grateful to these pioneers for their contributions, which have advanced the field, reduced barriers, and brought us towards a more equitable and inclusive world.” They inspire her personally and professionally to pursue a career that enables her to give back in a meaningful way. I am grateful to Nicole and many others like her who are the next generation’s pioneers, blazing a path forward.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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