Shaping a Journey toward Excellence through Diversity

William James College Launches Black Mental Health Initiative

November 01, 2016

Dr. Natalie Cort is highly credentialed, passionate about social justice, a woman of color, has significant clinical research expertise and is fully dedicated to remedying the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in the field of mental health. Though rife with disparities in the quality of care provided to minorities, the depth and breadth of the system's needs seem not to frighten her. She says, "I'm thrilled to be actively involved, with my amazing colleagues in the Center for Multicultural and Global Mental Health at William James College, in shaping our journey towards recognizing the excellence that is achieved through diversity."

"I'm using my passion, skills and expertise to support talented people as they pursue their dreams."
-Natalie Cort, PhD, Director, Black Mental Health Initiative & Graduate Academy

Cort has been selected to chair, with President Covino, the Black Mental Health Initiative, a multifaceted effort to recruit and retain Black individuals as faculty, staff and students at the College. Cort states that "Our institution needs to be integrated at every level." A critical part of the Initiative is an emerging academic pipeline program, the Black Mental Health Graduate Academy, designed to provide mentorship and support to Black individuals interested in seeking graduate degrees in mental health counseling and psychology at William James College.

"This is broader than just assuring there are more Black therapists," says Cort, though only five percent of psychologists across the country are Black. "People make decisions from their own perspectives," she explains. "Therefore, we need to promote an awareness of biases inherent in our perspectives and an appreciation for diverse perspectives." Cort understands the research on this issue. She quotes studies that indicate Black children are far less likely to be accurately diagnosed with problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism spectrum conditions. "Too many children are getting expelled, suspended and labeled as oppositional and defiant. Children are not getting the right kind of treatment because their psychiatric issues are misidentified," she says. "The field is replete with people of color being written off as 'crazy' or 'bad.' The bias is pervasive."

The former research scientist whose fellowships, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, focused on racial/ethnic disparities in mental health, credits William James College for having taken a leadership role towards addressing and remedying what she calls "the huge, dangerous, cruel, devastating disparity." Cort says "there are many people of color diagnosed with schizophrenia and involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals who do not have schizophrenia."

The Black Mental Health Graduate Academy Cort is spearheading incorporates best practices for supporting Black graduate students. "It's important to find someone with whom you feel a sense of mutuality. People need role models and mentors to provide academic and career support. We will create enrichment programs culturally tailored to fill any gaps created by educational disadvantages in order to promote students' success in graduate school.

Cort grew up steeped in Afro-Caribbean and East Indian cultures in Guyana, South America, where she says academic excellence was prized. She was surrounded by high expectations and leaders of color, and, as a result, she didn't question her ability to excel. When she immigrated to the US at age 12, she held the firm belief that if she worked hard she would succeed. "I came from a different place," she says, "that buffered me against justifiable rage or pain resulting from discrimination and limited opportunities that many Black Americans face. In addition, I'm easily able to bridge cultures and communities in large part because of my background." Cort, age 37, admits she is "slightly in awe" of where she is at this point in her life. In 2013, she left the University of Rochester Medical Center, where she'd earned her PhD and been Department of Psychiatry faculty before coming to William James. "Here I'm using my passion, skills and expertise in a different way to support talented people as they pursue their dreams. It's amazing to me."

"We're in a good place. We're dedicated, empathic and able to deal with uncertainty and discomfort as we ride this wave. We're on good fertile ground for this to happen."
-Natalie Cort, PhD, Director, Black Mental Health Initiative & Graduate Academy

Cort is realistic. She admits fulfilling the goals of the Academy and the Initiative will take time and commitment. "We'll have to change the climate," she says. "Everyone here needs to feel supported and invested in accomplishing our goals." According to Cort, "diversity has to exist at every level. Attitudinal change always takes time.

We may be challenging fears and biases we may not know we have." But, she insists, "I'm cautiously optimistic. We're in a good place. We're dedicated, empathic, and able to deal with uncertainty and discomfort as we ride this wave. We're on good fertile ground for this to happen."

Shown in picture at top: Fabiola Jean-Felix, MA, Clinical Psychology PsyD student and Coordinator for the Black Mental Health Initiative & Graduate Academy, Natalie Cort, PhD, core faculty for the Center for Multicultural & Global Mental Health and Director of the Black Mental Health Initiative & Graduate Academy and Adetutu Ajibose, MA, Mentor, Black Mental Health Graduate Academy.