Minority Mental Health Month

August 1, 2023

What is culture?

Culture is an incredibly important part of who we are, how we view the world, and how we live our day-to-day lives. For this reason, it is important to have care in the mental health field that is culturally competent. Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Toni Kelly, understood this early in her career and has pursued her own mental health counseling practice, focusing on marginalized groups including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and women.

“I wanted to create a safe space for people who look like me. A space where people don’t have to code-switch. A space with fewer barriers, where people can show up as their pure, authentic selves.”

How did Toni end up here? Our Communications Coordinator, Jess Klacik, was able to sit down with Toni and chat about how she ended up where she is now. Starting from a young age, they discussed what life is like as a woman of color and where Toni found her passion, and eventually, her own practice.

Like many of us when we graduate high school, Toni wasn’t sure what came next. She began college undecided and explored the idea of being a nurse, not taking long to realize it wasn’t the career path for her. Due to issues with transitioning to a traditional college environment, Toni left her university to attend a local community college while she figured out life as a young adult and what career path she was interested in pursuing.

During this time, she spoke with a close friend who majored in social work and she encouraged Toni to explore the field of study as a possible option. Initially, Toni was concerned about pursuing social work as a career path because she believed that all social workers were paid poorly. After meeting with the social work program director Toni decided to return to Tennessee State University and declared social work as her major. Following graduation in 2009, Toni began her career in child welfare with the Department of Children’s Services. After working there for two years Toni decided to leave and explore other social work-related fields which included long-term care, working at a managed care organization, outpatient therapy at a group practice, and inpatient psychiatric care. The experiences she received while working at an inpatient mental health facility led her to discover her passion for mental health & aging. Though the work was chaotic at times, inpatient psychiatric care allowed Toni to see patients enter at their worst mentally and leave feeling and looking better when they received proper treatment. This was an incredibly rewarding and great learning experience.

Also, while working at the inpatient level Toni realized two major gaps in mental health care: cultural competency and lack of diversity amongst treating mental health providers-inpatient and outpatient.

As a result, Toni became more vocal and ensured that she advocated for each of her patients, especially, BIPOC and women patients who are not getting what they needed. She spoke up and provided information, knowledge, and resources when a lack of cultural competency interfered with a minority patient’s care or the treatment team’s ability to understand and connect with the patient. Toni would also spend time with each patient assigned to her caseload providing psychoeducation on how to navigate the mental health system post-discharge. The goal of this intervention was to give her patient increased confidence in navigating an intimidating and difficult system.

While Toni enjoyed working in various social work fields, inpatient psychiatric care was the most rewarding. However, working at a hospital during COVID and navigating the pressures at a for-profit hospital became too much to handle. While earning her clinical hours for her LCSW Toni took free business classes through the Nashville Business Incubation Center (NBIC) because she recognized that she had a solid clinical foundation but no knowledge on running a business.

The experience in many different social work-related spaces and the foundational business tools she learned through NBIC led Toni to take the leap and open her own practice, Toni Kelly Counseling & Consulting (TKCC), in 2021. TKCC focuses on providing partnership and mental health services to women and BIPOC clients and intentionally prioritizes creating a safe space for women and minorities to show up authentically. To learn more about her practice, click here.

Toni has some advice for patients seeking culturally competent care:

  • If insured, utilize your insurance benefits and the insurance behavioral health customer service line to get a list of providers that fit your preference. Don’t be ashamed to ask for a BIPOC provider or one that aligns with your gender preference if that is where you think you will feel the most comfortable.
  • If you’re uninsured and are tight on money research which providers offer sliding scale or pro bono services or utilize community mental health agencies. Don’t shy away from interns or provisionally licensed therapists as they are great options and are being supervised so you’re basically getting two therapists for the reduced price of one.
  • Interview & research your therapists. Take advantage of free consultation calls as this is a way for you and the therapist to ask questions and see if the two of you would work well in a therapeutic partnership. Ideally, you should interview 2-3 therapists before scheduling the intake appointment.
  • Don’t “CHEAP” yourself on quality mental health services. If you have found a provider that you feel strongly about and can afford their rate, invest in yourself by paying for the service. You will thank yourself for the investment when you start noticing positive changes.
  • Advocate for yourself, find your inner voice, and speak up. You are investing your time, money, and emotional energy into this. If it doesn’t feel right say something!

Thank you, Toni, for sharing your story with us! We have gathered more resources for those who may be seeking culturally competent care.