Boise couple create culturally inclusive mental health agency

Angie Hernandez-Harris and Donnie Harris wanted to make sure that one day their children could access mental health care from professionals like them.

The couple have a Métis family. Hernandez-Harris’s daughter is Samoan and Harris’s daughter is black.

“It’s really hard to find a black therapist here in this community,” Hernandez-Harris said in an interview. “It is even more difficult to find a Samoan therapist. I think there are more therapists now than there were a few years ago which is amazing.

“But it still doesn’t meet the needs of brunettes, blacks, natives and LGBTQs,” Harris added.

That’s why this year, the couple launched Hernandez Harris Counseling and Consulting, a mental health services agency in Boise that focuses on culturally relevant care for Black, Latino, Indigenous and LGBTQ individuals and families.

Hernandez-Harris is a Licensed Clinical Professional Advisor and Therapist in EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is psychotherapy treatment which helps patients process traumatic memories and alleviate the stress these memories bring.

Harris is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor and supervisor.

“People of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds find that sometimes served by white clinicians, their specific needs are not easily met and they may not be connected to the resources they need because the therapist does not have their cultural background, ”Harris mentioned.

A push for culturally inclusive mental health care

The couple are among a group of mental health professionals who in recent years have pushed for more culturally inclusive mental health care.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that “mental health treatments can be more effective when they are aligned with the culture of the client and when therapists demonstrate multicultural skills.”

Melody Li is the founder of Inclusive therapists, a network of culturally sensitive and social justice oriented therapists. Li started the organization in 2019 after owning a private therapy practice for years in Austin, Texas.

Li, who is from East Asia, noticed how the industry was dominated by white people and often heard from clients and therapists who wanted to create a community of trust.

“The first part of healing is being understood and accepted,” Li said over the phone. “Entering a therapeutic space already requires a lot of courage. Interacting with healthcare professionals can seem intimidating, and it can be difficult to share traumatic experiences. If (the therapist) already has a basis for understanding systemic oppression, this may be the best place to start.

People of color experience racism, oppression and inequity, Li said. Having a therapist who understands these experiences is important for people, “so they don’t have to explain what it is. to live life in their body ”.

According to American Psychological Association, in 2015, 86% of psychologists were white, 5% were Asian, 5% were Hispanic, 4% were black, and 1% were multiracial. It’s significantly whiter than the United States, according to the census office.

In 2020, about 61% of the country were White, 12% Black, 1% Native American and Alaska Native, 6% Asian, 8% “of another race” and 10% two or more races. The census does not treat Hispanics as a race because the term can apply to people of multiple races, but when asked in a separate question whether people identify as Hispanic, 18.2% of respondents said say yes.

In a state like Idaho, which is 90% white, it can be even more difficult for people of color to find a therapist who resembles them and shares their cultural background.

“If you’re white, it’s easier for you to feel safe,” Hernandez-Harris said. “You can go there and you can find a white therapist and you don’t have to worry about their background. But it’s different if you’re a person of color or if you’re marginalized.

Hernandez-Harris also offers therapy services in Spanish.

“I get emails all the time from people needing a bilingual, bicultural therapist,” Hernandez-Harris said. “That’s why people are looking for me.”

She is also a licensed consultant and supervisor in Idaho, which means she helps other therapists develop their practice and provides supervision to practicing therapists.

“There is so much to language, and language matters,” Hernandez-Harris said. “Language, especially in a trauma-informed space, really matters. Of course, you can see a white therapist, there is nothing wrong with that, but if you can feel even more welcome in a space, it is an integral part of the therapy. The rapport is so important in therapy. If I don’t connect with my therapist, it’s a really big missing piece. “

The couple bring knowledge about racism, trauma

In their practice, Hernandez-Harris and Harris bring their life experiences and knowledge of racism and oppression.

Hernandez-Harris is a mixed-race Latina who moved between Mexico and Idaho while growing up. Her immigrant father came to Los Angeles from Guadalajara, Jalisco. Her parents met in a kitchen in Los Angeles, but her father spoke mainly Spanish and her mother, who is white, did not speak Spanish at all. Their first date was at Disneyland with an English-Spanish dictionary, Hernandez-Harris said.

Hernandez-Harris’s father died in a car accident, leaving his mother alone to support the family. Hernandez-Harris said his mother makes sure her children visit their father’s family in Mexico and learn Spanish. She has a deep spiritual bond with her father, she said.

From the start, Hernandez-Harris knew she was good at helping people.

“I settled in with a counseling program,” she said. “In a way, I feel called, and I continue to be called, to do this work. I feel like it does me good to share lived experience and wisdom and, through my clients, to learn their stories. People’s resilience and courage – that makes this job humbling. “

Harris was born in California and raised in Georgia. Being a black southerner, Harris said he knows firsthand the traumas black families have faced and continue to face across the country.

“You learn to cope and adapt,” Harris said. He decided to become a nursing assistant.

“I was careful that people hurt each other and that’s now part of who I am,” he said.

James C. Tibbs