Clinical Psychologist Jessica Lopresti on Allyship and the Mental Health Consequences of Racism

Illustration by ATEM/Sadie Levy
Name: Dr. Jessica LoPresti

1. In your words, describe who you are 

I am a Black, African American, cisgender woman.  I am also a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.  Professionally, I am a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Suffolk University.  I teach both undergraduate and doctoral students and mentor clinical psychology doctoral students.  In addition, I own a small private practice where I help clients manage a number of different mental health struggles including anxiety, stress, trauma responses, depression, grief, relationship struggles, as well as racism-related stress.  

2. How has your background and life story influenced your research and career?

Everything about who I am today (professionally and personally) is influenced by family, culture, life experiences, and identity more broadly.  I grew up in a working class Black family with parents who taught me the value of hardwork, perseverance, resilience, and kindness.  As a Black girl and woman, I have constantly navigated a world that sent me overt and covert messages that I was not enough.  More importantly, these messages were always contradicted by the messages from family, mentors, and my faith of pride in my heritage, confidence in my beauty inside and out, as well as faith in my ability to conquer obstacles.  These experiences led me to want to understand the short and long term mental health consequences of racism for people of color and ways to affect change in systems of oppression so that BIPOC no longer have to shoulder the burdens of long term negative consequences of racism.   

3. What are the key goals of your research? What do you see as the most important questions to answer about mental health in minority communities? 

My research focuses on the multilevel impact of racism on the mental health of people and communities of color as well as the barrier to quality and effective mental healthcare for people and communities of color.  I am interested in understanding the types of psychological responses to racism-related stress and trauma and how we can most effectively intervene both from a mental health perspective and from a systems perspective to assuage the negative consequences for BIPOC.  

4. Why is mental health such an important issue among minority communities? More importantly (by descending order of importance), what factors make minority communities least likely to seek mental health help? 

            Our communities of color are resilient, empowered, and beautiful.  Mental health and wellness is such an important issue in communities of color because we are facing the steepest of obstacles due to systemic and institutional racism which often lead to mental health difficulties.  I say, often, to clients that it would be shocking if we were not experiencing mental health struggles in the context of the overwhelming racial disparities our communities are forced to deal with (e.g. housing, education, food security, employment).  As people of color, we are having very natural mental health responses to a system that is set up to fail us in many domains.  

There are several factors that contribute to barriers to effective and quality healthcare for BIPOC including lack of representation in the field of mental health, limited culturally responsive prevention and intervention efforts (but growing), stigma associated with mental health difficulties and seeking help, as well as limited healthcare coverage.  As a teacher, researcher, clinician, and consultant I am committed to addressing the factors.  

Everything about who I am today (professionally and personally) is influenced by family, culture, life experiences, and identity more broadly. 

Jessica Lopresti

5. How do you process the resurgence of racial justice protests occurring nationally? In what areas do you see these protests as different from those that have occurred in the past? 

This resurgence is complex to process.  On the one hand, I am so excited and motivated by people across all life contexts (e.g. age, race, ethnicity, SES, immigration status, generational status) who are engaging in protests and other racial justice efforts since the most recent incidents of racialized violence in our country including the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. I think this context is what makes this moment in time different from those that have occurred in the past.  It is certainly inspiring.  

On the other hand, I recognize that Black people, and people of color more generally, have always been engaged in the battle for racial equity and justice.  In short, we are fighting for our lives.  There are many, many incidents of racialized violence that have not been publicized.  Racialized violence and trauma is not new to us.  It is difficult to sift through the “performative allyship” (e.g. the people who have just joined this battle because it is now socially acceptable or looks good for them) and the people who are truly engaged and willing to sacrifice for change.  This is a challenge that I have in both personal and professional domains.  To achieve true justice and equity, allies will need to surrender some of their privilege.  The willingness to surrender privilege is an important aspect of allyship and this is what separates “performative allyship” from “true allyship”.  Are aspiring allies willing to give up comfort?  Are aspiring allies willing to experience painful emotions and sit in these emotions? Are aspiring allies willing to accept the reality of privilege and the role privilege has played in their development and current circumstances?  These are the important questions.  

6. What has the coronavirus pandemic done to expose racial disparities in our society?

The list of disparities highlighted and exacerbated by COVID-19 is long and painful.  The first thing to note is about the messaging.  We are inundated with messages that Black people, and people of color more generally, are dying at disproportionately higher rates compared to White people because we are less healthy and it is our fault.  I take strong exception to this characterization of the health disparities affecting our communities.  This is about racial disparities in access to quality and effective healthcare, clean water, healthy and affordable grocery stores in our communities, housing, and quality educational environments.  In short, this is about systemic oppression and not about internal shortcomings within the Black community.  Without over a century long history of being systematically denied access to each of the aforementioned domains in the US context, these disparities would not exist and we would not be dying at disproportionately high rates.  

7. What do you think the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be on minority communities, especially children of color? 

The short and long term effects will be devastating.  From my perspective, we are at a fork in the road as a nation where we have the power to make decisions that will change the trajectory of this devastation.  This change comes through our vote (in all levels of government) as well as affecting change in our smaller communities.  The question we need to ask ourselves, every day, is:  What can I do to contribute to racial equity and justice today?   We have many life contexts (e.g. work, home, community) where we can make a difference by speaking up, speaking out, changing inequitable policies and practices, and unveiling disparities.  We all need to take these opportunities when they arise.  As civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis said time and time again, we need to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble”.  

8. You’ve mentioned several initiatives you’re working on, such as a “Learn and Earn” program launch with Anxiety.org and diversity/wellness consulting for employees of color at large corporations. Can you describe this work and what you hope the impact will be? 

Of course!  There are several initiatives we are working on through BARE Mental Health and Wellness to affect systemic change and support communities of color. 

First, we are partnering with anxiety.org and a nonprofit called “Learn and Earn” to present learning modules for adolescents and young adults about mental health stigma and the link between racism and mental health.  We are so excited to provide this resource for adolescents of color who might be struggling, to help them understand why they are struggling and that there are resources to support them through these struggles. 

We have partnered with community organizations to talk to youth of color about the field of psychology to inspire more diversity in our field with the goal of having more mental health professionals, researchers, and teachers in our field.  

We also have webinars in the works for several different organizations that will be available to the public, free of charge, discussing the link between racism and mental health and racism as a traumatic stressor.  Stay tuned! 

9. You recently co-founded a mental health organization entirely dedicated to the promotion and wellness of the black community through engagement, education, and advocacy.  Why did you decide to start Bare Mental Health? What are your goals for this organization in the next 3 years?

We are VERY excited about BARE (Black Advocacy Resilience and Empowerment) Mental Health and Wellness, LLC.  Dr. Tahirah Abdullah (co-founder of BAREMHW) and I have been talking for years about how we might affect systemic change around racial disparities and equity and justice outside of our work as faculty at academic institutions.  

The mission of BAREMHW is two-fold.  First, we are committed to the promotion of mental health and wellness within Black communities.   We provide workshops and trainings focusing on mental health and wellness, mental health stigma, as well as accessing quality and effective mental health care in and around our communities.  Secondly, given the pervasive nature of systemic oppression we believe that our institutions (e.g.  government, healthcare, educational, business, and legal institutions) can and should be more effectively addressing these shortcomings on an institutional level to support individuals and communities of color.  To this end, BAREMHW provides consultation, assessment as well as training and implementation services to empower, education, health, legal, business, government and community based organizations and institutions to meet their goals related to diversity, equity, and justice.  We consult around culturally responsive recruitment, hiring, and retention practices and policies with a goal of maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce.  We support the acute and long term mental health needs of employees of color through assessment of needs and implementation of workshops and trainings to meet the mental health needs of employees of color. We consult with larger healthcare entities and corporations in the development of culturally responsive research practices.  In short, we do it all!  We are so very excited to share our passion, skills, and expertise with others!  

10. What practical advice would you give to those struggling with the mental health burden of racism and negative messaging? 

The first thing I always say to people of color who are experiencing the negative mental health consequences of racism is that how they are feeling makes perfect sense.  As I said before, it would be shocking if we were not experiencing anxiety, stress, sadness, and anger (among other things) in the face of frequent and pervasive experiences of racism.  Finding spaces to acknowledge our emotional responses to racism is of crucial importance.  Secondly, I remind people of color that we did not create this system and it is not our fault that this system exists.  Thirdly, it can be helpful to understand the ways in which racism is getting in the way of our engagement in a life that is meaningful and valued.  Connecting to our values and what is meaningful in the context of family, relationships, work, education, faith, and community is one of the ways that we can cope with the negative emotions that arise in the face of racism.  Thinking about the type of person we want to be in the context of each of these domains can help us engage in behaviors that are in line with our values in the face of the most difficult of circumstances (e.g. institutional, cultural, and interpersonal racism).  

11. How do you remain optimistic for the future? 

I remain optimistic because of the people around me.  I have a village of passionate, compassionate, resilient, and empowered family and friends who remind me of all that is good in the world in the midst of so much pain and suffering.  

Faith is a never-ending source of optimism and inspiration for me.  

One other thing that keeps me optimistic is the compassion and commitment to social justice that I see around the country from people I do not know.  Our first responders, teachers, parents, caregivers, frontline workers and so many others are taking on great burdens during this pandemic. This shows the great capacity for compassion that exists in our country.   

My hope is that the light does not dim on the real issues of racial inequity and injustice and that the movement towards equity continues to strengthen over time.  

12. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be? 

A letter to my younger self would say 4 things:

Don’t be so hard on yourself! 

Try not to waste any energy in obtaining the approval of others.

Be unapologetic about your worth, beauty, and values.  

Set your sights and your goals higher than you would expect to reach. 

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee
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