Providers’ perceptions on race, racism and addressing racism through school-based mental health services

In this text Ona Needelman summarizes the main findings from her Master’s thesis, which she conducted in collaboration with Tuuli Kurki and “Racism, Mental Health and Young People of Colour” (RaMePOC) research project. 

My Master’s thesis So it is… I don’t think that was racism either, but it was just a kind of ignorance.” – Providers’ Perceptions on Race, Racism and Addressing Racism through School-based Mental Health Services (Needelman 2021) focused on the perceptions on race and racism, and on the means of addressing racism in basic education through school-based mental health services in the Helsinki capital region. The aim of the thesis was to bridge the gap in knowledge in the aforementioned subject area by producing knowledge on what kinds of challenges the “white” structures of school-based mental health services might present for anti-racist practices. 

As a school social worker, I have personally observed that racism receives very little attention in our professional networks. Declaring our work as anti-racist in nature does not carry any significance without firstly recognizing and discussing racism and secondly considering what an antiracist approach in school-based mental health services could look like. What could, for example, “I am an antiracist school social worker” or “I am an antiracist school psychologist” mean in practice? 

My goals for the thesis were twofold: to help draw attention to and heighten awareness around the new ways in which school psychologists and social workers could approach anti-racist mental health in schools and to contribute to the overall aim of “Racism, Mental Health and Young People of Colour” (RaMePOC) research project, with which I collaborated throughout the thesis process. 

CRITICAL READING OF RACISM AND ANTIRACISM IN SCHOOL-BASED MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

The literature and theoretical grounding of the study were drawn from studies conducted on racism, discrimination and their influence in Finland and the Finnish educational context, and theoretical discussions of Critical Race Theory (CRT) mainly from the American context. 

The central research questions were the following:

  1. How do mental health professionals in schools view the influence racism has on mental health and well-being of students of colour?
  2. How do school mental health professionals make sense of, and deal with, issues of racism faced by students of colour, and which challenges do they face in doing so?
  3. How do school mental health professionals conceptualize anti-racism as part of their professional roles? 

To answer these questions, I conducted in-depth interviews with 5 school psychologists and 4 school social workers working in basic education in the Helsinki capital region. Two of the interviews were conducted together with RaMePOC research project’s Principal Investigator Tuuli Kurki.

The data was analysed by using critical discourse analysis in combination with Critical Race Theory (CRT) lens for examining race and racism in school-based mental health services.

FINDINGS: LACK OF UNDERSTANDING (STRUCTURAL) RACISM, NOT SEEING COLOUR AND WHITE FRAGILITY

The results of the study clearly demonstrate the crushing lack of understanding about structural racism and unawareness of intersectionality within oppressive structures. 

One of the main findings suggested that it is more common to conceptualize racism as a problem of individuals and groups who are ignorant or blatantly racist than as a structural problem, which highlights how more covert contemporary forms of racism such as colorblindness reproduces white supremacy (Bonilla-Silva, 2021). Also, the prevalence of cultural racism that neglects racism as the cause of racial inequality may be connected to the Finnish national narratives that perceive racism as a product of immigration and the growth of anti-immigration discourse and populism during the past years (Puuronen, 2011; Keskinen, Seikkula & Mkwesha, 2021). 

In align with previous studies on racism and antiracism in Finnish schools (e.g. Alemanji 2017), my study showed the prevalence of colorblind discourses and the fact that most research on racism in Finland has concentrated on multicultural contexts and so-called multicultural schools. However, the most covert forms of racism are most freely perpetuated in white environments. On the other hand, diversity is not synonymous to anti-racism and racism does exist in “multicultural” schools as well. Interestingly though, when I sent the invitations to participate in this study, I received a few responses from welfare professionals working in “whiter” schools that although the topic was interesting and important, they considered not having a lot to offer for this study because there ”is not a lot of racism in our school”.

National narratives of equality, equality plans in institutions and promoting tolerance are not the same as anti-racism. My findings also suggested that race may be added to the list of differences that may produce inequality with an emphasis that race is an “equal” inequality with all the other inequalities white people may also face, which marginalizes the systemic racialization that is deeply embedded in society. I interpreted the prevalence of diverting from the topic of race and racism in the interviews which specifically asked about racism also as white fragility (e.g. DiAngelo 2018; Saad 2020) that describes the discomfort and defensiveness of white people when discussing racism and racial inequality. Without centralizing racism even in discussions about racism specifically, the concept of anti-racism is reduced to reacting and interfering with discrimination that is witnessed instead of embarking on a process of eliminating racism and targeting structural racism such as inequality based on language that has been proven to exist.

FUTURE RESEARCH IDEAS: SCHOOL-BASED MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES PROMOTING ANTIRACISM AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

In conclusion, based on my study, racism in the field of counseling and school-based mental health services requires further investigation. 

First, more knowledge and counter-narratives require further investigation from the perspective of non-white mental health professionals to uncover more ways white supremacy affects their professional fields and hence influences lives of clients. 

Second, currently mainstream anti-racist campaigns and training target all schools and neighborhoods with rather similar strategies. Therefore an important area of research would be investigating how racism is perpetuated in predominantly white schools in particular, where everyday racism is more subtle and even invisible.

Third research area of urgency would be researching whiteness in university studies of psychology and social work that prepare future mental health professionals for schools. Representation among university teachers, research methodologies, topics on racism and its impact on well-being and help-seeking, and social justice actions as part of professional identities are areas of necessary further research. More knowledge on how whiteness shapes professionals’ own education they receive could lead to innovating concrete action towards developing anti-racist mental health work. Examples could be defining what a mental health professional needs to achieve and possess for being an anti-racist mental health professional and how could they officially indicate the personal work they have done to acknowledge how racism has shaped their positions for clients and their employers.

Lastly, it would be important to investigate counseling and the interaction between mental health professionals at school and students from a social justice perspective. Both the perspectives and experiences of students and providers require further investigation, especially since it is assumed that these professions fundamentally advocate for social justice. 

As a school social worker myself who engages in deep conversations with students about areas of well-being, I recognize that the providers can have a significant impact through dialogue with students on social justice issues as well. My future research interests include studying both the experiences of students of colour on receiving mental health support and seeking for help but also the ways providers advocate for social justice and address racism in client interactions where their student clients show racial prejudice and seemingly have racist views. What strategies could school psychologist or school social worker with antiracist agenda employ when they encounter racism expressed by a client that they are working with?

It is agreed upon that professional ethics of mental health and well-being professionals such as school social workers and school psychologists include advocating for social justice and standing against structural inequalities that impact life outcomes and areas of well-being of their clients. This is something that I am planning to examine in the future; to examine how antiracism and social justice translates into action and what does professional commitment to social justice mean in practice in school-based mental health services in Finnish schools.

Link to the full thesis will be published here soon. 

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