Black Psychologists Sounded the Alarm Bells in 2021
In September 2021, CBC journalist Nicole Williams interviewed Mrs. Kafui Sawyer (Registered Psychotherapist) and Dr. Helen Ofosu (Organizational Psychologist) for an article called “Black psychologists say there are too few of them in Canada — and that’s a problem.”
“We’re in a mental health crisis in Canada,” Sawyer said. “Most of the people suffering are racialized people, and these racialized people are not getting the help they need from people who understand them and have the lived experience.”
This interview occurred during the Covid-19 Pandemic when the combined impact of the pandemic and the racial reckoning of the profound implications of anti-Black racism motivated more Black and other racialized people to seek mental health services. The severe shortage of Black psychologists was crystal clear at this moment.
According to Sawyer, in her 15 years of working as a psychotherapist using her MA in psychology as her foundation, she has met only a handful of other Black people working in the profession, compared to meeting hundreds of white colleagues. There are even fewer Indigenous psychologists, estimated to be less than 15 across the country. This shortfall prompted Sawyer to initiate a plan to bring together Black professionals and students in Canadian Psychology.
Dr. Ofosu noted that most people know of a Black lawyer, physician, or accountant. “I know most professions are [more] diversified in terms of race … but when it comes to the profession of psychology, it’s very rare” to find a Black one.
Like Mrs. Sawyer, Dr. Helen Ofosu lives and works in Ottawa. She has worked as a psychologist for more than 20 years. She said she had met only one other working Black psychologist during her career and a handful of others working in related fields.
Dr. Monnica Williams is the Canada Research Chair for mental health disparities at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology. She said it’s difficult to determine exactly how many Black and Indigenous psychologists are in Canada because that information isn’t tracked by the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). But she said, “the numbers are abysmally low.”
“We know that there are not nearly representative numbers of psychologists of colour in the field, and definitely not enough to meet the needs of communities of colour,” Williams said.
The Psychologist Accreditation Process is Part of the Problem
Sawyer, Ofosu and Williams all say part of the problem lies in the accreditation process for psychological professionals.
To become an accredited psychologist in Canada, students need to be accepted into a graduate program at a post-secondary institution and, later, an internship program. Getting into a program depends on having a faculty member agree to be their supervisor — a requirement that Sawyer said is problematic.
“Faculty is predominantly white, and the students they’re recruiting or the students they have in [their] program are also predominantly white,” said Sawyer. “The accreditation process is actually racist.” For a comprehensive analysis of the accreditation process in Canada, read Lions at the Gate: How Weaponization of Policy Prevents People of Colour from Becoming Professional Psychologists in Canada, published in Canadian Psychology in 2023.
In December 2022, Sawyer (founding Chair) and Ofosu (Chair Elect), and Williams (with two other colleagues) established a new Section focused on Black Psychology within the Canadian Psychological Association. The purpose of the Section is to serve the specific needs of members interested in Black Psychology. The Section’s mission is to promote and advance practitioners, educators, students, and scientists of psychology who identify as Black and who are concerned about psychology-related issues that impact Black people.
As of August 7, 2023, the Section has 97 members.
Some of the Section’s executive members were active participants in two CPA Committees with progressive social justice mandates, namely the Human Rights and Social Justice Committee – Decolonizing Psychology and the Systemic Racism Working Group (both within the CPA). These Section executives were disappointed when they were informed by email that these committees were being put on hold and that the decision was made without feedback or input from members of the working groups. The email dated December 15, 2022, meant that the Decolonizing and Systemic Racism Working Group would not move forward with its plan to collect race-based data to help determine the representation among various groups within the profession of psychology in Canada.
Interim/Preliminary Demographic Study of Black Representation in Canadian Psychology
Although the CPA did not believe collecting disaggregated demographic data was a priority, the Black Psychology Section executive members started to collect this data as an interim measure. The Section’s hope and expectation is that the CPA and the various provincial and territorial Colleges of Psychology will ultimately take on this responsibility since they are connected to all psychologists working in Canada through the process of accreditation.
Obviously, without any financial or research support and while running their busy own practices, the resources available to the Black Psychology Section are limited. But, despite these constraints, a clear picture of Canadian Psychology has emerged based on the data collected by the Section executives – and it is extremely problematic.
A Troubling Picture Comes into Sharp Focus
Canada has a population of 40 million men, women, and children. In recent years, more Black immigrants have relocated to Canada. Many of these people have specific needs that are not directly addressed by the Canadian mental health system (e.g., dealing with the trauma associated with war, refugee status, post-traumatic stress, and the process of immigrating to a country where they must deal with anti-Black racism). In addition, Canadian-born Blacks and other Black people who have lived in Canada for a long time do not get the psychological services they need when psychologists do not understand the Black experience or the profound impact of racial trauma.
The CPA has approximately 7000 members, including working professionals and students. Provinces and territories have Colleges of Psychology that govern the practice of psychology. Many members of these Colleges are not members of CPA.
Below, you will find a snapshot of the Black people in Canada who are pursuing an MA, PhD, or PsyD in Psychology – or working in the field of psychology.
This survey was launched in June 2023. It was designed to be very quick to complete to maximize the number of respondents. We did not ask many personal questions because our main goal was to create an interim private estimate of Black psychologists and students.
Eleven women and four men (or four people who could be male, female, nonbinary, etc.; not sure because of their first names).
Five students answered on their own behalf, and the other 10 [66.6%] were identified by someone else connected to the Section either directly or indirectly.
Provincial Representation of Black Graduate Students:
– One studying in Quebec,
– One studying in New Brunswick, and
– Thirteen studying in Ontario
Three current graduate students are working professionals who are also pursuing graduate studies in Psychology (two are completing PhDs, but it is unclear whether the third person is completing an MA or a PhD).
Our Data Also Identified 58 Working Professionals
Eight men and 50 women (or people who we were not sure of their gender because of their first names)
Eight people answered for themselves, and the other 50 were identified by someone else connected to the Section either directly or indirectly
Eighty-six percent were identified by someone connected to the Section; this suggests the community is fairly closely connected.
– PEI: 1 (and Ontario)
– New Brunswick: 1
– British Columbia: 2
– Nova Scotia: 2
– Alberta: 4 (one is also in Ontario) – in Alberta, someone can use the title Psychologist with an MA degree
– Quebec: 10 in Quebec, someone can use the title Psychologist with an MA degree
– Ontario: 37 (not including the one who is affiliated with Ontario & Alberta, or the one in PEI and also Ontario)
One respondent did not indicate the province where they are based,
Level of Education:
Twenty-eight of the working professionals have an MA degree, and the other 30 have a PhD or PsyD.
This article was written by Dr. Helen Ofosu, Chair, Black Psychology Section, with input from Mrs. Kafui Sawyer, Past-Chair, Black Psychology Section and our Chair-Elect Dr. Edna Aryee. The infographics for this report were created by Mandycka.