Dr. Thema Bryant championing mental health awareness: trauma, treatment and therapy

By Nicole D. Batey,
Special to the AFRO

Thema Bryant, Ph.D., is a woman on a mission to change the landscape of psychology, to not only be more diverse but also more accessible to the masses, especially within the Black community.

Bryant, or “Dr. Thema,” as she is referred to on her website, is the president-elect of the American Psychological Association (APA), the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology with more than 120,000 members. She is a past president of the Society for the Psychology of Women and a past APA representative to the United Nations. 

The APA honored distinguished Early Career Contributions to Psychology in Public Interest in 2013. The Institute of Violence, Abuse and Trauma honored her with their media award for the film “Psychology of Human Trafficking,” in 2016 and the Institute honored her with the Donald Fridley Memorial Award for excellence in mentoring in the field of trauma in 2018.

She is the editor of the APA text, “Multicultural Feminist Therapy: Helping Adolescent Girls of Color to Thrive,” and is one of the foundational scholars on the topic of the trauma of racism.

In 2020 the International Division of APA honored Bryant for her “international contributions to the study of gender and women,” part of her work relating to Africa and the Diaspora.

Bryant Davis is a member of the Association of Black Psychologists and incorporates culturally-based interventions in her teaching, research, and practice.

She is currently a tenured professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University, where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. Her clinical and research interests center on interpersonal trauma and the societal trauma of oppression.

Bryant Davis completed her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Duke University and her postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical Center’s Victims of Violence Program.

Thema Bryant, Ph.D., is a woman on a mission to change the landscape of psychology, to not only be more diverse but also more accessible to the masses, especially within the Black community. (Courtesy Photo)

Having earned a master’s of divinity, Dr. Bryant is also an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She directs the mental health ministry at First AME Church in South Los Angeles and utilizes sacred dance and spoken word in therapy, community forums, and faith communities.

The APA president and church elder also ministers through creativity and is working on a film project that focuses on psychologists who have become leaders in various arenas, but come from historically excluded groups—people of color and people who are LGBTQIA. Bryant Davis is looking at what their journey was like and studying what shaped and helped equip them. 

She has used her own background as a foundation for considering the stories of other psychologists representing marginalized groups.

“I am the first psychologist in my family, however, I learned how to lead from my family,” Bryant said. “There are lessons that we learn from our families, our communities that prepare us to launch into these various fields.”

Bryant is also the host of the “Homecoming Podcast,” a mental health podcast to facilitate your journey home to your authentic self using practical tips. She also recently published a new book called “Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self,” released March 15 and can be ordered at: https://drthema.com/homecoming/

AFRO: First, congratulations on becoming the president-elect of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Thema: I am so grateful and excited! This opportunity definitely connects with mentorship. One of my mentors in the field is Jessica Henderson Daniel, Ph.D., (American Board of Professional Psychology) ABPP, who is the first Black woman to be president of APA and I’m the fourth.

AFRO: As you take the helm of the APA, what do you hope to accomplish?

Dr. Thema: My theme is Psychology for the People, and that is about getting our various communities the information we need so that we can cope and heal and thrive. While it’s important to have knowledge in the “academy,” in our journals, and going to graduate school, it should not be exclusive or just for the elite. It’s not just about my healing, but it’s about the collective. I’m going to be addressing that theme in a number of ways, one of which to include, next year, hosting a conference in D.C. that is really centered on the community. This conference will focus on the tangible things, practical tips to help people, especially during these times that people are dealing with the trauma of pandemic, the trauma of ongoing racism and other forms of oppression, because there is a great need to make this kind of information accessible.

Along with the conference, I’m going to be working on guidelines for what we call decolonizing psychology, and what that means is, paying attention to the context in which people live. It’s not just a matter of telling people to take a deep breath, if they’re dealing with systemic oppression. We have to look at how we help make systems and institutions, along with individuals, be better. Decolonizing psychology pays attention to our history, our political landscape, our economic circumstance, and it also celebrates other indigenous forms of healing.

While I’m a big advocate of therapy, I also know from our own culture, that we have our ways of healing—storytelling, spoken word, poetry, rap, our music, spirituality, dance, and our cultural wisdom around healing.

AFRO: More African American men and women psychologists and licensed mental health therapists are needed, especially in adolescent mental health. Why?

Dr. Thema: One, it is a matter of having our community be aware of and open to mental health. We typically only select fields or occupations that we have heard of and are respected in our community.  There has been a stigma that relates to mental health. I’m glad that there has been a recent shift, where people are talking more publicly or posting on social media about going to therapy. I think that helps young people to then consider pursuing in college. Often, we encourage our children to do the careers we are most familiar with. Perhaps, you’ve heard that speech about ‘going into a respectable profession or getting you a ‘good gov’ment job.’

My pathway into psychology was by way of my father [Bishop John R. Bryant], who did pastoral counseling. People were always calling the house or making appointments, because largely in our community then, people would go talk to their pastor or minister. That’s what got me tuned into this idea of counseling, and when I discovered it’s a field all by itself, then I said, ‘Oh, this is something that I would like to do—to bear witness and be present with people, as they’re working through their life’s challenges.’

However, a barrier for some of us who choose to go into psychology can be economic. It is one of those professions that you do have to go to graduate school and financial strains can be a barrier to pursuing this field. The scholarships for the doctorate program can be competitive, so it’s important to have mentorship to help you navigate through that process and increase your possibility of accessibility to funds.

AFRO: Entering into the field of Psychology, what were some of the major challenges you faced?

Dr. Thema: It can be overwhelming, when you are the only one or one of a few Black people in a program. We can start to question ourselves or have insecurity. Some people refer to that as imposter syndrome, however some have said it’s not really imposter syndrome, because it’s not just your own insecurities, it’s actually being in environments that are hostile. It’s not your imagination, you didn’t get insecure out of nowhere!

Think about when you are in places where people are acting like they’re doing you a favor or making you feel like either you are not welcomed or valued, or you hear people speak negatively about your community. I know many black graduate students have talked about the challenges, because there’s that power difference where you may have a professor who is saying something about the Black community and you’re the only one sitting there. You feel this weight of responsibility, ‘I need to say something, and yet this person is kind of in charge.’ I think what was helpful for me was, growing up in our community and being encouraged to use my voice, to not be silenced.

For example, in my graduate program we had a class on family therapy and met for a whole semester. It was a three-hour class, and only one hour of one week was devoted to our community’s families. The instructor had students read a paper called 

‘The Poor Black Family,’ and for the whole hour it was ‘Poor black family…poor Black family.’ So there’s no way I [could] not speak! I said something, and the instructor did get defensive and eventually acknowledged that were other articles on Black families. Please understand that there are incredible articles and journals out there, written about our Black community, by members of our community, with knowledge about our community, and they write with compassion and empathy.

AFRO: You, yourself are a trauma survivor. Would you care to share with as much detail as you’re comfortable with, what happened? Trigger Warning: Discussions of sexual violence.

Dr. Thema: I’m a sexual assault survivor and as often the case, it was not a stranger, but someone not only known to me, but known to my family. It was the betrayal of trust, when you think someone is safe and then discover they’re not when it’s too late. That occurred when I was an undergraduate and had come back to Baltimore while on break. When I got back to Duke University, that was the first time I struggled academically, excelling academically had always come natural for me. Sexual assault can make it difficult to concentrate, and that was what was happening with me.

I went to the counseling center on the university’s campus and that was helpful. Two other important parts of my healing were my dancing and my faith. With the expressive arts, sometimes you can speak about those things that feel unspeakable. So I danced my way through along with talk therapy, being prayerful and experiencing the peace of God.

It’s no mystery then that my focus area as a psychologist would center around trauma recovery. Sometimes we do that ‘Sankofa bird’ of reaching back to help other people who come with various forms of trauma or devastation, and to know that we can rebuild, that there can be life after those moments. This for me, is not only what I read in a book or what I studied, but also I know healing is possible because of my own life. It fuels the passion I bring to the work being done.

You can learn more about Bryant, her services, book and podcast by going to www.drthema.com.

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