Lamar University Press Logo

Making ‘Lemonade’

Jessica Martin explains the importance of diversity in counseling in her office located in the Education Building, Tuesday.  UP photo by Noah Dawlearn
Jessica Martin explains the importance of diversity in counseling in her office located in the Education Building, Tuesday. UP photo by Noah Dawlearn

 Most people probably wouldn’t imagine a group counseling curriculum based on Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album and black women’s empowerment, but this is what Lamar professor Jessica L. Martin and her colleague Olivia Williams in Atlanta, is focusing her research on.

Martin, LU Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program coordinator, studies experiences and techniques in working with African American female clients in mental health, and the impact of race and ethnicity in the counseling process.

In 2015, Martin did a study as part of her dissertation at the University of Central Florida while running the clinic there. Research had suggested that African Americans do not usually go to counseling.

“This has kind of been the truth, but not really,” she said. “When I did my study, I realized that I was seeing more and more African American people actually coming in, and I said, ‘Well, this isn’t really on par with what the research says.’

“What I didn’t want to do is what we call a deficit study, where we’re talking about what’s wrong. I want to talk about what’s right. People are coming to counseling — what are they getting out of it?”

Martin interviewed seven or eight women at her clinic through interviews, asking them why they came to counseling and what they enjoyed.

“The idea that the research is saying they don’t come, they don’t like it, they don’t get anything from it, just wasn’t ringing true,” she said.

However, Martin was only able to get female participants for her study.

“I reached out, tried to get some male participants, and it wasn’t happening, which was OK, because my interest has really been focused on black women,” she said.

From there, Martin decided that the shift in thinking about mental health has to start with the women.

“These are the mothers, the providers,” she said. “Once it really becomes more acceptable among women, the trend will shift to men. Not to say that we didn’t have men at our clinic, we just didn’t have any who wanted to be in the study which, traditionally, makes sense.”

The women told Martin they learned more about themselves through counseling and realized many of the stereotypes surrounding mental health treatment — sitting on a sofa, hearing what’s wrong with you, taking lots of medication, and looking at ink blots — were not accurate or based on current methods.

“We don’t do any of that,” she said. “We sit and we talk, we work through some issues. As a counselor, it’s not my job to tell them what’s wrong — it’s my job to say, ‘You tell me what’s going on and what you want to change, and I’ll help you figure out a way to do it.’

“It’s a very non-directive process. I think a lot of people are afraid of being judged, and when they come to counseling they realize we’re not here to judge. We’re not here to tell you anything that’s wrong and we’re not here to cure you — we’re just here to have a conversation.

“Once black women realized that it’s just a conversation, it’s just this talking about what’s going on, counseling is more approachable.”

Martin said her counseling is not based on what’s wrong with her clients.

“We’re not a sickness model, we are a wellness model,” she said.

Williams works with a private practice called The Healing Center for Charge that focuses on African Americans.

“They will have like a wait list a mile long so, again, that’s not fitting what old research is saying,” Martin said. “People are out there, it just hasn’t been approachable until recently.”

Beyoncé’s Lemonade explores themes that black women find relatable, Martin said.

“The concepts are still the same, all we’re doing is changing the look of it to reach this group,” she said. “Let’s use music, let’s use social media, let’s use these pop icons because that’s how we start to engage a younger audience, because women can listen to that album and identify with some of these songs.

“Well, let’s talk about that in a group counseling session, what do you take from this song? What do you take from that in your own life?”

Martin and her colleague plan to pilot the program at the clinic in Atlanta. She said she believes the social media attention on mental health, specifically for black people, is changing perceptions of mental health.

“Now you have Facebook who has different pages focused on it, you have Instagram that’s got tons of pages just focused on mental health for black people,” she said. “People are saying, ‘Now, wait a minute, that’s not quite as bad as I thought it would be.’

“The conversation around mental health has changed. There are more celebrities talking about it, people are talking about the things that they’ve dealt with. I’m part of that generation, my parents when I grew up were like, ‘You don’t talk to anybody outside of the house about what goes on in our house.’ In many ways, you understand that’s a protective factor. But at the same time, I tell my clients, if you get sick you go to a doctor. Well, if you have a mental illness, you need to see someone else who is going to treat that.”

Martin said society doesn’t stigmatize people for going to the doctor for having a cold, so why should a stigma exist if one have an issue in one’s mind. She is attempting to shift that mindset.

“If my car breaks down, I take it to a mechanic,” she said. “Nobody is like shaming me because I took my car to a mechanic. We just have to get away from that mindset that if you are going to counseling you’re crazy. If anything, the best thing is that we’re going to counseling to keep us from going into those tailspins and becoming ‘crazy.’

“We want to go early before it’s too late, to deal with some of those issues that are just there.”

Martin said she believes her part of a greater mission is to communicate to clients and future counselors that counseling is not what it used to be and it doesn’t have to look like just one thing.

“It doesn’t have to fit in this narrow box, and if you want to bring in younger generations, minority clients, we’re going to have to adapt.”

Category: Features