New program connects Black Sonoma County residents with culturally competent, free mental health services
It’s a first in Sonoma County, a program created to provide members of the Black community — the region’s smallest demographic — specialized support services to address mental health needs.
Called the Black Therapy Fund, it is a voucher program that was specifically established to connect the county’s Black residents and members of the BIPOC community with therapists of color who understand the challenges — racial, socio-economic, etc. — they deal with.
“The legacy of slavery, racial terror, discrimination and bias, and all of the interlocking systems have impacted Black communities for generations,” said D'mitra Smith, program manager with the Sonoma County Black Forum, the nonprofit administering the fund. “We hope this program will not only improve the mental well-being of our Black community but will also be followed by many more investments in Black futures in Sonoma County.”
Up to 234 qualified residents who apply for assistance via the fund will receive 12 free counseling sessions with vouchers valued at up to $150 per session.
Sonoma County allocated $574,200 to launch the initiative, which is one of 27 community-based programs that received funds from $96 million the county received from the federal government via the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, county officials said.
ARPA aims to offset the negative impacts of COVID-19, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, which were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“There's so much need with regard to housing and education and employment and all the other areas, but we really feel like this is one way that we can begin to help people be seen, be able to get some support about whatever issues they may be struggling with from someone that has an understanding of what it's like to be Black in this community,” Smith said.
“At Sonoma County Black Forum we see ... culturally competent mental health without financial barriers — which prevent a lot of people from accessing this care. It is really an important part of addressing the negative health outcomes that we see within the community,” she added.
She pointed to the 2021 Portrait of Sonoma County, a data-driven community well-being report released in January 2022 that quantified the significant needs and issues within the county using numerous indicators, such as race, ethnicity, gender, education, and socio-economics.
Among the report’s more alarming findings were the significant disparities that exist, particular within the Black community which lags far behind other groups in the areas of housing, employment, education, wealth and overall quality of life.
One of the most shocking discoveries was that the life expectancy of Black Sonoma County residents is 71 years, which is at least 10 years shorter than that of any other racial or ethnic group in the county.
In addition, the urgent need for mental health services for this particular demographic is also made worse by the over representation of Black people in the region’s homeless population, Smith said.
While Black residents make up about 1.6% of the county’s population, they comprise about 13% of the county’s homeless population, according to the most recent county data.
Smith also referred to other local studies, such as a July 2020 report that analyzed 425,000 individuals who used Sonoma County’s health, mental health, substance abuse, housing, criminal justice, and human services systems between the 2014 and 2018 fiscal years.
The report identified 6,600 people as being the highest users of services provided by Sonoma County. The group made up only 1% of the population, but accounted for an average of 28% of behavioral health costs and used at least $27,000 in state and county government services each year.
Members of this group, according to the report, were also three times more likely to identify as Black.
This report was authored by the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley, a nonpartisan research institute that uses data to inform public policy, and Access Sonoma County, an initiative that was the brainchild of Barbie Robinson, the county’s former health services director and one of three high-ranking Black officials to depart the county in the past two years.
Access Sonoma County, according to its website, was created to identify the county’s most vulnerable residents and develop coordinated strategies to improve their well-being, self-sufficiency, and recovery.
The mental health services provided by the Black Therapy Fund will be provided virtually and in person. Smith said she is also working with local providers to ensure those who qualify for the vouchers have a way to access their virtual sessions.
“I've been working really closely with our homeless service providers to make sure that folks who have technology access barriers can be able to access sessions, because most of it is going to be through telehealth,” she said, adding that if someone needs to charge a phone or is unsheltered, they can visit local drop-in centers to access these services.
Of the over 40 therapists who are part of the program, all are BIPOC with some bilingual therapists available, as well.
Participants will be connected to Sonoma County therapists and therapists from San Francisco-based On the Margins, a nonprofit that collaborates with other groups to design and implement anti-racist, joy-focused, affirming practices, and Oakland-based Sankofa Holistic Counseling Services.
Smith said the Black Therapy Fund “is a drop in the bucket compared to the urgent need for investment in the Black community. Bias in housing, education, employment and so forth, point to systemic failure and contribute directly to mental health concerns. The Black Therapy Fund is just one small area where we have been able to provide some support to the community.”
The program, as of Monday, was about 30% full, Smith said.
And, although targeted to the Black community, it will not deny assistance to eligible households on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.
"We want people to get the help that they need so that they can thrive,“ she added. “We're done surviving. We want people to thrive.“
You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Sawhney at 707-521-5346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @sawhney_media.