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PhD Student Chika Ofodu Seeks to Improve Mental Health Access for Black Womxn

Chika Ofodu

PhD student Chika Ofodu is conducting research on how to improve access to mental health services for Black womxn. At Palo Alto University, Ofodu is earning her PhD in Clinical Psychology with a dual emphasis in Diversity and Community Mental Health and LGBTQ Psychology and plans to graduate in June 2024. The title of her dissertation is “The Narrative Examination of the Mental Health Help-Seeking Processes of Black Womxn.”

“I want to understand how Black womxn go about seeking treatment,” says Ofodu. “Do they seek it formally, such as by searching for a mental health professional, or informally where they are doing journaling or talking to friends in their community? From this data, I plan to generate recommendations for how outreach programs can help them attain the mental health care they need.”

Ofodu currently has three participants in her study and is in the process of recruiting 12 more. Ofodu grew up in the East Bay and conducts community outreach in Black communities all around the Bay Area (Berkeley and Oakland to name a few) to recruit the remaining participants. She aims to have a total of 15 Black womxn in the study, inclusive of all gender and sexual orientations and identities.  

“In the study, I hope to have cis-heterosexual Black womxn, sexual minority [LGBTQ+] Black womxn, and gender minority Black womxn such as trans, non-binary, gender questioning, or gender expansive. I want to highlight the diversity of Black womxn’s experiences,” says Ofodu, who identifies as a Black, gender-expansive womxn.

Obstacles for Black Womxn Seeking Mental Health Care 

The key questions Ofodu is asking her research participants are 1) how do they describe their mental health experiences? 2) what are their current coping strategies? And 3) how are they going about seeking help?

“It’s very common in communities with little mental health access to also have low mental health literacy,” says Ofodu. “Rather than saying, ‘I’m feeling anxious,’ they might say, ‘I’m feeling pressure in my chest,’ and as practitioners, we need to be attuned to the fact that when they are describing body sensations they may be talking about their mental health.”  

Regarding coping strategies, Ofodu finds that many Black womxn don’t often seek professional mental health services, rather, they journal, exercise, speak to people they already know, and participate in community activities such as going to church every week. She finds that Black womxn have difficulties finding professional mental health services that meet their needs.

Ofodu explained the key obstacles to effective mental health care that are specific to Black womxn. First, is the stigma and shame that Black communities  have around receiving mental health treatment. 

“Given the historical and intergenerational trauma within the Black community, we’ve learned not to talk about our problems and just keep going. We’ve developed a level of resilience that is useful but also has contributed to us not paying attention to and talking about our mental health,” says Ofodu. “The understanding is that if something is happening in the home, you don’t talk about it—nobody else needs to know about it. You pray about it because God is going to deliver you. And that’s about it. But over time, it takes a toll.”

Secondly, many Black womxn don’t know where to begin to find treatment due to a lack of mental health and technological literacy. And, if they found one, they don’t know the questions to ask to assess if they are a good fit. Although the womxn in her study could potentially benefit from sessions with a mental health professional, many of them don’t know where to begin and therefore haven’t.

Another big obstacle is the need for a cultural match between the client and therapist. There is an underrepresentation of Black therapists, and there is a general mistrust of mental health institutions from the Black community toward non-black health providers as a result of anti-Black violence and harm in the past.

“Black womxn are wanting to work with other Black womxn,” says Ofodu. “When you’re experiencing oppression and racial trauma, it can feel like you’re the only one. But if your practitioner has had similar experiences, they can provide a higher level of safety, empathy and understanding, and it feels so good to know that you’re not alone.”

Ofodu also notes that there is an underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ therapists, as well. For womxn who identify as Black and LGBTQ+, there are very few Black LGBTQ+ therapists, so they have to negotiate between which identity is more important and choose their practitioner accordingly. In her research, Ofodu plans to delve deeper into improving mental health access for womxn holding multiple intersecting identities.

Lastly, Ofodu says that Black womxn often feel like they don’t belong, they feel invisible, and that their needs don’t matter; As this gets internalized over time, this leads to loneliness, depression, social anxiety, and an overall disregard and invalidation of one’s own needs. 

“There is a sense that, ‘my needs don’t exist’ or ‘my humanity doesn’t exist’ because look at how they are treating me,” says Ofodu. “There’s a sense of invisibility that agencies, institutions, and schools do to Black womxn. It’s something we need to be aware of, do a better job at recognizing when it’s happening, and provide alleviation.”

Looking to the Future

The three main things Ofodu hopes to see are more Black womxn successfully receiving mental health treatment from clinicians they resonate with, and for them to stay in treatment and not drop off after only a few sessions. Ofodu also hopes to see more Black mental health providers, for example social workers, counselors, or therapists. 

Ofodu owes much of her success to the excellent mentorship provided by PAU faculty members. She feels fortunate to have received such incredible support from her chosen sister/research assistant, Destany Habte Michael, and committee members, Liz McConnell, PhD, Janice Habarth, PhD, and Teceta Tormala, PhD

After completing her doctorate degree, Ofodu plans to continue engaging in research, working in community mental health for a few years, then becoming a university professor. At PAU, she has been inspired by working in Dr. Liz McConnell’s research lab, REAL Lives Lab, and hopes to run a qualitative lab of her own someday focusing on Black feminism, Black and LGBTQ+ mental health, and community outreach projects.

“I love working with Dr. McConnell. The way they light up about their research – I want to be like that,” says Ofodu. “Dr. McConnell has been very supportive and affirming and has greatly helped me to find the research that is most meaningful to me.”