June 22, 2022

UCalgary Psychology Clinic to launch free therapy program for Black community members

Let’s Talk! Black Mental Health workshops offered up over the summer to create awareness of program
Tamara Williamson, Nikita Kalonji, Brae Anne McArthur
UCalgary’s free therapy program for Black community members begins this fall. From left: Tamara Williamson, Nikita Kalonji, and Brae Anne McArthur. Sydney Seidel

It was in the days following the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd — a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis as he begged for his life. It was also two months into the COVID-19 pandemic and Calgarians, like roughly half of the world’s population, were on home lockdown.

Nikita Kalonji, a project manager, actor, advocate for Black mental health, and cofounder of SOS Congo — a not-for-profit organization advocating for Calgary’s Congolese community — was finishing up her daily workout on the balcony of her apartment building. She began chatting at a healthy distance with her neighbour on the next balcony over, Tamara Williamson, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at UCalgary.

The aftermath of Floyd’s murder sparked protests around the world and for months it became a central, polarizing focus of both social and traditional media. “I was so triggered by the death of George Floyd, and I was extremely drained by all the negative trending energy that was taking place,” says Kalonji. “I was venting to Tamara, and it evolved into a conversation about the lack of mental health support within Calgary’s Black community.”

Williamson was in a position to help. “It’s hard to find affordable mental health care in Canada, not just for the Black community, but for everyone if you don’t have great benefits or know where to look,” she says.

The University of Calgary Psychology Clinic has a mandate to provide the community with affordable services at low to no cost, on a sliding scale. It seemed to me that we could help with this problem.

To that end, the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic and Kalonji are hosting a series of Let’s Talk! Black Mental Health workshops this summer, the next one being held July 5, live on Zoom. Workshop topics include a discussion of the challenges that affect the mental health of Black Albertans and how to access mental health services in Calgary.

Springboard for free therapy service

The workshops are intended to spread awareness of a free therapy service for all members of the Black community which will begin in September at the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic. Therapy at the clinic will be provided by PhD student therapists and supervised by a Black registered psychologist.

“We’re dealing with an uphill battle in the Congolese community, because in our cultures it’s very much ‘Keep it in the family,’” says Kalonji. “You don’t even share your problems within the community. They’re not to be spoken of. You certainly don’t speak to a stranger, even if it is a therapist, because those strangers tend to be white folks, and there’s deeply rooted, multigenerational distrust.”

Because there are so few Black therapists, there’s usually an extremely long wait time to see one, which also poses a problem. “Such a delay in treatment can have dire consequences,” Kalonji stresses. “We’ve suffered so many losses in our community through suicide, murders. These workshops and this free therapy service for the Black community at the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic is badly needed.”

Aim to reduce mental health stigma in Black community

Dr. Brae Anne McArthur, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic, agrees. “With these workshops over the summer, the idea is to get reduce the stigma around mental health in the Black community,” she says. “Our goal is to engage with the Black community and hopefully dismantle those barriers of trust.

“Our clinic is invested,” she continues. “We’re trying to take these steps, in collaboration with a community partner, to build a program that has sincere recognition of the Black community’s lived experience.”

Upcoming Let’s Talk! Black Mental Health workshops will be posted on the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic website. To access the clinic’s therapy service, Black Calgarians (18-plus) can call 403-220-7731 or email PsyClinic@ucalgary.ca