Where do queer and trans people of color go when the mental health system lets them down? Erica Woodland, founder of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network (NQTTCN), hopes they find a community built on healing justice.
“We know that most of our healing and mental health support is accessed outside of the traditional system because the systems are harmful and not accessible due to cost and other issues,” he says. Instead, NQTTCN exists to connect Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPoC) to mental health practitioners who operate in an entirely different way than the ordinary medical industrial complex. While other organizations have attempted to compile directories of Black therapists, they often include allied practitioners. NQTTCN offers the only directory of solely QTPoC mental health practitioners across the country. “Practitioners are really isolated. People want to be a part of something where they can connect with other people who have a similar experience, who have a similar set of values,” Woodland says. “I think we are an important bridge to make that connection.”
With decades of experience organizing around harm reduction, HIV/AIDS, the prison industrial complex and more, Woodland says, “I’ve always done a mixture of advocacy and organizing and direct care.” The same combination applies to NQTTCN, an organization guided by the belief that personal struggles in the community are inextricably linked to broader trends.
During his work with the Brown Boi Project, Woodland says, “I got to support a lot of folks in their leadership development and then just saw a level of mental illness, mental health crisis that people were experiencing as part of their daily life.” After years of suggesting that someone build a national network to address these crises, Woodland took on the project himself. He says, “I founded the organization really as a passion project and as a chance for myself to be less isolated as a practitioner, orienting around a certain set of values.” Overwhelming community response turned his passion project into a full-fledged organization.
NQTTCN goes beyond connecting practitioners to those in need of help; it defines itself according to a unique framework of healing justice. “We sit at this intersection of mental health and the broader liberation movements in our country,” Woodland says. That awareness means the organization follows a radical approach that addresses mental health issues in context and mobilizes QTPoC therapists to social and political action.
Woodland describes healing justice as a political and spiritual framework grounded in historical liberation movements and intergenerational trauma “that really looks at how structural violence is at the root of a lot of our suffering.” Woodland, a Black, queer, genderqueer practitioner with twenty years of activism and healing experience, knows firsthand what that structural violence looks like. The same structural inequity permeates mainstream approaches to mental health. He says the field generally begins with the approach that “you have a personal problem that needs to be fixed, instead of looking at the conditions in which that problem originated.”
Honoring spiritual and cultural healing traditions of its communities also contributes to the organization’s distinctive method. Recognizing the benefits of peer-led healing as well as personal spiritual practice in addition to therapy by QTPoC practitioners comprises its adaptive and layered framework. Woodland says, “It allows us to interface with the mental health system but not be of that system.”
Even with the network providing national access, Woodland recognizes that there are other barriers for those seeking mental health help. “For us this is also an economic justice question. Therapy is really important, but it’s a huge expense to put on an individual,” he says. In response, NQTTCN offers a mental health fund, to which QTPoC can apply when they need coverage. The fund, fueled by community donations and NQTTCN funders, covers up to $100 per visit over six visits. Given the high costs of therapy, Woodland recognizes that this may be a drop in the bucket for some. Nonetheless, QTPoC therapists in particular already do a lot of pro-bono or low-fee work, according to Woodland, who adds, “Even if you can find a QTPoC therapist, a lot of us don’t take insurance because of the structural issues in healthcare or might not take this specific person’s insurance.” The fund, which reopened this month, strives to alleviate as much of this burden as possible.
The mainstream mental health system throws up barriers not only for those seeking help, but also for practitioners like those who form the network. In addition to facing entrenched white supremacy and intense queer- and transphobia in the workplace, Woodland says, “We’re being asked to work in ways that are not aligned with our values.” With NQTTCN, practitioners are able to focus on the political and social contexts of their clients and rely on a range of approaches in addition to traditional psychotherapy. When he used to work in institutions, Woodland was often tokenized and assigned all QTPoC clients; little has changed in the system since.
Now, QTPoC practitioners are up against additional demanding challenges. The dual impact of COVID-19, which disproportionately affects Black people in the United States, and the recent killings of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery (to name a few), leaves QTPoC therapists in a difficult position of serving their communities and caring for themselves. “We were already under attack before COVID-19 and before these mass uprisings across the country, but now therapists are holding together the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of a lot of people who are protesting,” Woodland says.
At the same time, mental health practitioners are personally affected as well and can have difficulty finding an outlet. Woodland says, “If you’re a therapist, you can’t really talk about your work openly because of confidentiality, and a lot of the work you’re doing is really intense, and you can’t just talk about that flippantly.” To heal the healers, too, NQTTCN creates practitioner support spaces, where members can reflect on their work and devise strategies for coping, all to “ensure that we have what it takes for the long haul, because things are going to get worse before they get better,” Woodland says.
Part of the strain comes from the heavy involvement of Black queer and trans people in organizing such movements. “Our contemporary movements that are directly related to changing the conditions of Black people’s experience are led by us, so we’re there, and we’re at the forefront of articulating what needs to happen,” Woodland says. He acknowledges that queer- and transphobia causes some people to ignore this reality: “People are now saying Breonna Taylor’s name, but people are still not saying Tony McDade, so what does it mean to support a deeper, intersectional analysis of what’s happening right now?” Woodland says that to ignore some of these lives and the massive debt owed to Black queer and trans activists is to ignore an essential component of the history of these liberation movements.
Reflecting on the historical precedent, he says, “I think there’s something extremely special about this moment. And I also think it’s the result of many decades of organizing.” The roots for this collective action extend back half a century, but the perfect storm of time, dedication and unity sets this year apart. “Certain conversations where I was banging my head against the wall ten years ago people are now open to,” he says. With most people isolated at home, they are more able to learn and pay attention. The problems are visible and inescapable. Woodland says, “The usual suspects are suffering, but more people who just could ignore structural violence and inequality are now suffering.”
Of course, no amount of progress is an excuse to become complacent. Woodland says, “I think what comes out of this moment is going to be determined by what we do. It’s only a portal for transformation in a good way if we do the work.” He hopes that cities across the country follow the lead of Minneapolis and Los Angeles in re-evaluating their police forces and begin to take action around defunding the police and addressing mass incarceration. He warns of the danger of people not engaging with these concepts, saying, “The conditions are capitalizing on us not understanding something as basic as intersectionality or white supremacy.”
One of Woodland’s personal goals for the future of NQTTCN is connecting to even more care-providers. He points to informal mental health support on the part of university campus workers and leaders of LGBT centers as huge sources of potential. “We know that people are practicing in a lot of different contexts even if they don’t have training because of the need,” Woodland says.
“What’s in the future for us is really starting to solidify our field-building strategy and getting super clear about what it means to build a movement of radical QTPoC psychotherapists who are transforming the mental health system,” he says. “Part of what we know is that we first have to find each other, get connected and build that trust.”
To find out more about NQTTCN, visit https://www.nqttcn.com/about-us
To donate to the mental health fund, visit https://www.mightycause.com/story/2m3omf