When Shawntell Pace was studying for her bachelor’s degree at Auburn University, a predominantly white school, she found herself searching for a place to belong as a black woman. Now a first-year doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Georgia, Pace is building a community for black women who find themselves in a similar situation.
Last summer, Pace, along with third-year counseling psychology doctoral candidate Ecclesia Holmes, started a support group for black female students and community members called The Healing Circle.
“I felt like there was a need and there wasn’t really a space for black girls to be vulnerable and have community,” Holmes said.
Similar to Auburn, the black community is underrepresented within UGA’s student body when compared to state demographics. According to UGA’s Office of Institutional Research, approximately 8% of UGA students were black or African American in fall 2019. Nearly a third of Georgians are of black or African American origin, according to U.S. Census Bureau July 2019 estimates.
In addition to offering black students a communal space, The Healing Circle aims to offer guidance about accessing mental health services and reducing stigma about doing so.
According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, while 16.2% of black or African American adults had mental illnesses in 2018, just 8.7% received mental health services.
“Misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and lack of cultural competence by health professionals cause distrust and prevent many African Americans from seeking or staying in treatment,” according to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The Healing Circle hopes to provide a safe space amid these issues.
The support group works with different women in 10-week cycles, with one session per week. Since its creation last summer, it has cycled through two groups comprised of both UGA students and community members. Pace and Holmes acted as facilitators during sessions, but the group members collaborated to plan their own curriculum. The participants decided which topics to cover.
“It’s really about sisterhood, and it’s about coming together,” Pace said. “That’s important in the black community, like fellowship.”
Holmes has since stepped down from facilitating The Healing Circle, and Tanisha Pelham, a second-year doctoral candidate at UGA, is taking her place. Pelham received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black university.
Pelham said her experience at UGA has differed from FAMU — she is looking to facilitate and create a space for other black women.
“Whether it’s relationships, whether it’s down to the families, whether it’s dismantling the negative archetypes of black women and developing and renaming what a black woman [is] and redefining what it means to them — then we do that,” Pace said.
Pace said The Healing Circle focuses on topics such as loss, stress, depression, relationships, identities, boundaries and spirituality. Participants can join the support group regardless of whether they’re facing these mental and emotional challenges. Pace said the group is open to all black women attending UGA or in the community.
Joining the group is also completely free, which Pace said was important in order to combat the financial barriers of accessing mental health services.
One of the group’s first participants, Imani Handy, a master’s student in the Mary Frances Early College of Education, said The Healing Circle provided a healthy outlet for her to express herself while balancing school and work.
“We talked about the different roles we play in our lives, like being a friend or a daughter. I would definitely recommend it,” Handy said. “I’m doing the group again, and I think it’ll be a little different because it’s different facilitators.”
The next group cycle has been capped at 14 women and will hold its first meeting on Feb. 13, Pace said. There are about 30 women on the waitlist who will be notified first about the next cycle.
The Healing Circle grew from Pace and Holmes’ experiences at the Center for Counseling and Personal Evaluation — a counseling service offered through UGA’s College of Education — to counter the disproportionate treatment of black adults’ mental health.
If desired, Pace and Pelham can direct individuals in The Healing Circle to one-on-one counseling sessions through CCPE, where they are both clinicians.
According to CCPE’s director, Linda Campbell, CCPE is staffed by master’s and doctoral students who are completing their medical work and are supervised by professional psychologists. CCPE also offers long-term services when appropriate. In contrast, the University Health Center’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services, while a similar service, offers a limited number of sessions with professional psychologists and counselors.
Pace and Pelham also work with the Sankofa Research Team, which was developed by Collette Chapman-Hilliard, an assistant professor in the College of Education at UGA, in 2018. The word “Sankofa” comes from the Akan tribe in Ghana and literally translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
The Sankofa team researches, develops and supports community initiatives to improve the mental health and academics of various racial and ethnic groups, Chapman-Hilliard said. Her research has included developing and proposing models to analyze how racial history affects mental health in black youth. Chapman-Hilliard created the team as a function of her research program at UGA, and it inspired the creation of The Healing Circle.
Pace and Pelham’s work in Sankofa has influenced their knowledge of what they call “black psychology,” which incorporates psychological work with historical context to meet the needs of black people.
Pace and Pelham also want to see The Healing Circle expand after they have finished their schooling at UGA.
“I’d certainly love to see it continue,” Pelham said. “Because it is different needs, students versus community members, so I’d like to see different settings, as well.”
Pace and Pelham hope their vision can spread to other UGA campuses and broaden the range of The Healing Circle’s success.