For a while there, Marlee James didn't really believe in mental health therapy — even when she was studying to be a mental health therapist.
Because of stigma and other factors, James said, Black people often don't seek therapy. "Black folks, we just don't believe in it," she said.
James has since changed her mind and is working to change others' with a center that offers therapy specifically for Black people. She launched Reviving Roots, a therapy and holistic wellness center, in May and will hold its grand opening Aug. 19.
Located near Loring Park in Minneapolis, Reviving Roots has an all-Black staff of therapists, instructors and coaches offering not only traditional talk therapy but also massages, yoga and other physical classes intended to enhance holistic health. It is also a gathering space for other activities — classes, co-working, movie nights, game nights — for the Black community.
"In this space, we are centering Blackness," James said.
Black Minnesotans have few places where they're surrounded entirely by other Black people, she said. Many of the center's members live and work in spaces that are primarily white — places where "the mask goes up."
Terrence Thigpen, a therapist at Reviving Roots, is familiar with that sense of wearing a mask in mostly white places.
"I don't get to show up in the world oftentimes in my most true sense of self, because it's socially risky," he said. "Here, I don't have to mask."
With its all-Black staff and members, Reviving Roots provides "a space where it's clear you belong in that space," James said. "It's a space where Black folks can be their full selves instead of 'the Black person in the room.'"
Tiana Bellamy knows that feeling, too. She became a member of Reviving Roots shortly after she heard about it and immediately felt at home in the center's "warm and welcoming" atmosphere.
"I was like, it doesn't matter what I have to do, I want to be in a space like this," said Bellamy, 27, who lives in St. Paul. "I think there are so few places and spaces in American life and culture that feel so open and welcoming to Black people specifically. It allows you to drop all the additional requirements or advocating that you're allowed to take up space or be present somewhere."
In groups where most or all of the others are white, Bellamy said, she feels the need to do "additional work" to justify her presence and establish that her contributions are valuable.
What that work entails "depends on what the space is," she said. "Sometimes it's really as simple as just, like, white people are not obligated to learn any of the cultural nuances of Black American life. So it feels like an unfair relationship ... because you have to navigate white cultural standards but there's not the same kind of retribution or reciprocal relationship."
Need for therapists of color
Nationally, 25% of Black people get mental health treatment compared with 40% of white people. Black people are less likely to seek therapy for a number of reasons, including financial constraints and insurance limitations, cultural and sometimes family stigma surrounding mental health care. The lack of diversity among mental health providers also is a factor.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, white people comprise 79% of the state's population, but 88% of the mental health workforce. Black people, in contrast, represent 7% of the population but less than 3% of mental health workers.
"There is a significant need for more counselors of color in the field … given everything going on in our environment," said Carolyn Berger, who trains school and mental health counselors in the University of Minnesota's Department of Educational Psychology.
It's important for Black people to have access to Black therapists, James said, with whom they're more likely to feel comfortable sharing race-related trauma. For example, a Black client might tell a therapist about an experience with racism — say, having a store clerk follow them around the store as if expecting them to steal something.
"A white therapist might say they could just 'think' their way out of the racism," James said, perhaps telling the client they must have misunderstood the situation or imagined nonexistent racism, she said.
Whereas a Black therapist might say, "Oh, yeah, that just happened to me two days ago," James said. "There's an advantage to having somebody who gets it."
Treating lingering trauma
Reviving Roots is tucked into Fawkes Alley off Harmon Place, in an old brick building with a door confusingly labeled 1629-1625, though its actual address is 1624 Harmon Place. It's on the third floor, at the end of a hallway that suddenly opens onto a bright, airy, modern space.
Colorful prints at the entrance are paired with labels containing affirming messages. "This may be the first time that you have centered your 'self' — which is made up of your mind, body, soul, spirituality and identity — own it and cherish it," says one.
In 2019, James was offering therapy in a solo practice in Minneapolis and thinking of expanding. Then in 2020, after COVID hit and George Floyd was murdered, James' waiting list of therapy clients jumped from about 30 to more than 100.
Much of the need for Black people to seek therapy comes from experiencing trauma, James said. It could be racial trauma they've experienced themselves or trauma that lingers through generations.
"When we experience trauma it stays in our body and can be transferred to our children and our children's children," James said.
Anxiety can be transferred even without it being expressed verbally, she said. For example, a child holding their mother's hand may feel the grip tighten if the mother feels threatened.
James is interested in the physical side of mental illness — one reason, besides a shortage of Black therapists, that Reviving Roots also promotes wellness through yoga, massage and other activities.
One-on-one talk therapy "does not work for many segments of our population," Berger said. "For many people, traditional talk therapy is not going to cut it for them — it's not a good fit."
Even in talk therapy, James has clients notice how their bodies feel when they're frustrated or afraid.
"Stress is held in your body and causes inflammation," James said. "It's going to stick in your body if you don't have an opportunity to release it."
Massage and yoga are among ways to relieve it. Sometimes the stress becomes evident when people start crying during a massage as the feelings get released.
"I've done it myself," James said. "People cry in yoga class, people cry in boxing."
Reviving Roots has two membership levels: The $99-a-month membership offers fitness, yoga and meditation classes, some livestreamed, as well as coworking and communal space and community wellness events and groups. The $239-a-month Signature membership offers all of those things, plus one counseling session and one massage per month. In the fall, the center will launch a $49-a-month Digital membership that offers livestreamed classes and groups.
Reviving Roots does not focus on the Western medical model of treating illness, but instead promotes wellness, James said.
"What are the things that bring you joy, what are the things that help you feel good, help your mind feel good? We engage with that," she said.
When: Noon-3 p.m. Aug. 19
What: Acupuncture, massage and other activities
Where: 1624 Harmon Place, Mpls.; third floor