Bridging the Gap: Behavioral Health in Black and African American Communities

A conversation with Donnetta Watson, Board Certified Therapist and Licensed Counselor at The Ladipo Group

Bridging the Gap is a series of conversations designed to spotlight the challenges of accessing and practicing behavioral health in diverse communities. Through open and honest dialogue, we aim to address barriers and specific needs with expert recommendations and online resources in the hopes of increasing awareness, improving accessibility to behavioral health care, and inspiring further conversation that can bring us together.

In this interview, we speak with Donnetta Watson. Donnetta Watson is a Board Certified Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor who has provided individual and group counseling within a variety of settings for over a decade. Most recently, Donnetta has served Black and African American communities working in the Counseling and Consulting Departments at The Ladipo Group.

Founded in 2004, The Ladipo Group is a counseling and therapy center specializing in counseling and therapy for Black and African American communities in Philadelphia, In 2010, The Ladipo Group began offering consulting services to educate and train businesses and employees on how to create and promote more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplaces.

The Ladipo Group specializes in counseling therapy for Black and African American communities. What inspired the organization to choose this focus, and what drew you personally to the organization and the mission?

The Ladipo Group was founded by Tonya Ladipo back in 2004. Before starting her own company, Tonya worked as a licensed clinical social worker in a variety of community behavioral health settings. There she noticed that the Black and African American communities weren’t receiving quality mental health and behavioral health care services in a variety of these agencies. Additionally, there wasn’t a very diverse presentation or representation of Black clinicians among these workspaces.

The staff of The Ladipo Group

This inspired her to create her own practice in which she could specialize in providing quality mental health care services to Black and African American communities. In 16 years, The Ladipo Group has grown to a team of over 10 Black clinicians and therapists on staff who offer counseling services, as well as consulting and training services designed to help organizations create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workspaces.

In addition to clinicians in our organization, the Ladipo Group provides a space for Black clinicians outside of our practice to network through events that bring behavioral health professionals of color together. From special workshops to movie screenings, we continue to seek new ways to expand our reach and make sure that we’re supporting each other in as many ways as we can.

When I think of what drew me to The Ladipo Group, it’s their mission, which encompasses all of the things I just mentioned. In the three years I’ve been with the organization, I’ve been able to use my skillset as a clinician in a variety of ways, aside from being in the counseling office. I really appreciate the experiences I have gained with the Ladipo Group. It has been inspirational to work with a talented and dynamic team of Black Clinicians and staff. It is a unique, supportive, and cohesive environment; the company truly seeks to support our growth as professionals.

What kind of stigmas do Black and African American people face when it comes to mental health? Why is there such a persistent stigma around it?

When I initially think of that question, I think of the negative experiences Black and African American communities have had with the medical and mental health system throughout our history in the United States. There’s a deep-rooted mistrust within these systems, which contributes to that stigma. Those memories are not forgotten and play a role in how the community chooses to interact with these systems.

Black and African American communities have survived and functioned by instilling the notion that personal or family issues are kept within the home.  

Also, there are misconceptions around who mental health or counseling services are really for. When I think of how the behavioral health field is marketed and shown in the media, it’s shown as a predominantly white space for a variety of reasons. That sometimes plays a role in, “Oh, counseling services are not for us. That’s something for them.” The behavioral health field is primarily made up of predominantly white practitioners. Some of the stigmas around accessing services are caused by people feeling, Are they going to be able to connect? Are they going to be able to support me and relate to some of the issues that I’m facing? The majority of clients who’ve come to Ladipo Group come to us for that reason.

How does art therapy relate to behavioral health, and how have you found it to be productive in your treatment and in your practice?

As a board-certified art therapist, I am trained to empower clients to use the art making process and artwork as a means to explore their internal and external experiences.  When I think of art therapy, I consider how we don’t own art making since it is inherently therapeutic. Art transcends language barriers, cultural barriers and because we all see images and we all have the capacity to express ourselves through art. You don’t have to be an artist to be able to make a mark on a page. So those are the things that draw me to the field in itself. And it’s a very creative, collaborative, and individualized approach. There’s no cookie-cutter way to approach art therapy.

People naturally have defenses that we use when we’re talking as we’re filtering information, but art-making actually can help to bypass those defenses. They’re not going to have the same filter in their artwork that they may have when talking. Due to this, it helps for a deeper exploration of a client’s internal experience. Art therapy can also take the form of supporting connection building with clients, or using art making as a form of stress/anxiety management. I also notice that some clients prefer to just paint or draw while talking, without a focus on the outcome of their artwork.  There’s a lot of different approaches to using art, and I tailor it based on who I’m working with and what they’re presenting with.


Donnetta Watson

Access to behavioral health services is a challenge for everyone. Are there unique challenges impacting Black and African American communities?

I feel there are some overarching issues of access to mental health services across communities regarding insurance coverage and cost of services. Often times, access is a matter of having insurance coverage. If you don’t have insurance, it’s about the ability to afford sliding-scale self-pay rates. A unique challenge is that clients do not have a lot of people to choose from if they want to work with someone who shares some of their racial experiences. There aren’t enough Black therapists and even fewer who are able to accept insurance as the licensing and credentialing process is unnecessarily complicated and lengthy. Over time, the increase in Black and African American clinicians and professionals within cities and towns will help make it easier for Black and African American communities to gain access to quality, affordable behavioral health services.

How can society as a whole support mental wellness for the Black and African American communities at this time and beyond? 

Our mental health is impacted by a variety of things that happen to us on a daily basis and throughout our history. When I think of society as a whole, I think about the need for Black and African American communities to be humanized and for others to understand that we are impacted.

I also feel that people have to confront their role in oppressive practices and policies that impact mental health care and services. They need to ask themselves, how can we create lasting change? Creating lasting and impactful change requires people to recognize that it is a process. It has to be ongoing, there has to be follow-through, and it can’t be a trending initiative. It needs to be long-lasting, and also genuine. 

In terms of mental wellness, it’s important for providers, counseling programs, and educational programs to be very intentional with who they’re bringing in and to develop recruiting practices that promote more diversity within the counseling field. It’s not just recruiting people to meet a quota, but collaborating with people in the community who can make a tangible impact on the overall culture of these institutions.

Within the field of mental health and behavioral health counseling, there are cultural competency trainings and diversity inclusion initiatives, but it’s not just checking off a box.  It’s knowing that it’s work that has to be continually nurtured, so you can be an ally and develop a team of allies within your organization.

Behavioral Health Resources for Black and African American Communities


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