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Tackling the mental health challenges faced by Black communities

Headshot of a Black man with beard in a black shirt and red tie smiling at the camera
Dr. Kasim Abdur Razzaq provides culturally-centered therapy for marginalized groups.

Just one in three Black adults gets the mental health care they need. That’s according to a 2019 national study. In part it’s because fewer Black people can afford health insurance, and also because of social stigmas surrounding seeing a therapist. 

Dr. Kasim Abdur Razzaq created his business Abdur Razzaq Counseling & Social Architecture to provide culturally-centered therapy for marginalized groups. Razzaq was raised in the historic Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul, which he says nurtured his sense of culture. He says it was important to him that he find a way to serve his belief in the power of people. 

“Therapy for me is about healthy human relation, and developing healthy human relationships. First, the relationship with ourselves, and then that relationship reflecting on our relationship with the Creator, and then those relationships reflecting on how we're in relationship with other parts of creation, human beings, and other parts of creation. And that is part of the sacred space, that this is a trust. There's a trust and a sacredness about being in relationship with people and allowing other people to support you in the things that you need. And for you also to be able to give support for folks who need it.”

Razzaq says, coming from a culture where you often heard the term “village,” he recognizes that the individualist nature of American society can create mental health challenges for people who have historically thrived in more communal and spiritual cultures.

“In a lot of ways, the modalities for therapy are rooted in spiritual concepts and paradigms,” said Razzaq. “And so, my perspective on it is that – like anything else in our society, any discipline – our medical discipline, our social practices, or sociology, psychology – we try to remove the concept of God consciousness and spirituality from the equation as a part of our democratic society. But the reality for me is that you can never remove God from the presence of his creation. So those areas of spirituality, cultural practices – those things are super important to the wellness of any person and should be a part of the therapy practice.”

Razzaq says serving the mental health needs of Black Minnesotans is an enormous challenge. 

“In the state of Minnesota 2% of mental health professionals identify as Black or African American. Which means that there's a very small pool of mental health professionals that the community has access to. And so in terms of getting culturally responsive, culturally aware, culturally informed, therapeutic support; it's challenging,” said Razzaq. 

“But from a social media standpoint, I think it's trended in terms of people making it sound popular to have a therapist. And people that haven't typically been identified as groups that seek therapy have likely attempted more within the last year,” Razzaq added. “Have I seen that influence better outcomes, better accessibility, fewer barriers? Not necessarily. Some of those things are still there for all of the same marginalized groups that there's always been.”

Razzaq says he roots his work in Black liberation. He says there are all kinds of layers that must be peeled back to support a healing process. One is socialization.

“Part of what can influence or impact people's wellness is through social identities and how we're socialized. So as Black males growing up, and just males in general, you're taught not to be hurt, you're taught not to seek help, you're taught to figure out things for yourself.”

He says to combat the idea that therapy is not a suitable space for men, he is intentional about defining his role as a practitioner. 

“When people come in, the first thing that I do is I orient them to our space and I always let them know they are the expert on themselves coming in. And then I orient them to who I am in the space. Which is first, a mirror, to reflect back some things and to remind them of some things that maybe they have lost sight of that maybe they can't see.” 

Razzaq says it’s important for men to decide on their own that seeking mental health support is not a weakness. But often the women in their life play a key role. 

“Just as a general generalization, you will see girls and women seeking therapy more frequently than men. And then also I would say, they might seek it quicker. And typically, at least from my experience, a lot of men and boys come in part at the hand of some woman in their life. So men are typically referred by a partner, by a friend, by a cousin, by a mom. Same thing with boys,” said Razzaq.

Razzaq says inaccurate or overdiagnosing disproportionately affects marginalized groups. This too can negatively impact the narrative one develops about their own healing process, or their life experiences. 

“And so, when somebody says something like depression and anxiety, are these things normal… The symptoms that are associated with depression and anxiety are definitely part of emotional experiences that everybody goes through,” he said. “For example, everybody experiences sadness. Everybody goes through a point of sleeping more or sleeping less than they are used to sleeping. Everybody experiences worry where they have racing thoughts. These things do not impose a disorder. It has to fit a very specific criteria.” 

Despite the barriers faced in accessing traditional therapy for marginalized groups, Razzaq says the resilience of the human heart, body, and mind is not to be denied. He says art and movement have been effective healing tools for stressors and trauma. Especially for groups who face financial barriers in accessing therapy.

But Razzaq says this is not to deny the weight of diagnostic statistics when it comes to the mental health of marginalized groups, such as the Black community he serves. Depression for example, is still the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. And factors such as poverty, environmental and health factors can exacerbate these outcomes in particular areas more than others.  

“Anytime we're talking about a disorder, it means that there's a cluster of symptoms. So not just certain symptoms – there's a cluster of symptoms that have reached a point of what we call ‘clinically significant.’ Clinically significant is denoted by impairment in one of your life domains like your family, your education or vocational work, or your social circles,” explained Razzaq.”And so part of having a disorder is, there has to be the presence of symptoms, the intensity of symptoms, and those symptoms have to cluster in a way that make up a particular disorder.”

Razzaq says if your resolution in 2024 is to move towards wellbeing and you’re not quite ready to step into a traditional therapy setting, he recommends prioritizing three things in your day which he says are foolproof in supporting wellbeing. These three daily incorporations are something to do, something to look forward to, and something to love. 

And he says, thanks to the internet, there is a ton of information accessible to help someone when they’re ready to take that first step. Here are a few helpful sites:

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