Kemoy Jemmott on discrimination, intersectionality, and alternative approaches to therapy and self-care

The Queer Back Therapy Fund founder discusses creative solutions to systemic problems in mental health care systems.

By Chloe Lula

While training to become a therapist, New York native Kemoy Jemmott realized that she was one of two queer people—and the only Black person—in her graduating class.

She wondered, Why was it so difficult to find other BIPOC mental health care professionals? And how could queer people of color get access to therapists who were competent in working with issues around race, class, gender, and intersectionality?

The last few years have seen Jemmott finding creative solutions to this problem. In 2018, she joined Stillpoint Spaces to bring her background in psychosexual care work and feminist theory to clients in Berlin. And this year, she launched Queer Black Therapy Fund (a platform Refuge Worldwide has supported through donations), an initiative that aims to bring a year’s worth of counseling sessions to 10 queer Black clients in Germany. 

We sat down with Jemmott to talk about intersectionality, disparities and gatekeeping in the mental health profession, and ways that we can collectively practice mutual aid and self-care during times of crisis. 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in therapy, sexual health, and their touch points with intersectionality and feminist theory?

I think honestly I was just really lucky to have comprehensive sex education from a very early age. When I was in high school, I developed an interest in psychology, which is what I studied in university. I didn't really have a set goal, so everything has been a work in progress. I eventually became interested in counseling, and I was also studying sexual health in my university and received a minor in sexual health. So then it was just this process of thinking, “Okay, how can I combine these things in a way that feels interesting for me?”

Your website says that you’re training to become a doula as well?

Yeah. One of the required classes for my minor in college was called Maternal and Child Health. I was super interested in that from a public health perspective. It taught me a lot about the disparities that exist within the birthing world between Black women and non-Black women, and the poor health outcomes that they experience (and also the poor mental health that can be a part of that). I found a training course here in Berlin, and I just decided that this is the time to do it. I imagine moving into this work and supporting my clients from birth with my counseling skills and my sexual health background. It’s a very new journey.

You’ve lived and practiced in both London and Berlin. What made you decide to move to Germany? Are the issues you’re approached with here different from the issues you would see in London or elsewhere?

I moved to Germany in 2018. I'm still learning how these systems work, and it is so challenging. It's challenging for anyone in a mental health crisis, but also just anyone having a challenging time. Picking up the phone and calling someone for support, or even sending an email, can be really difficult. There’s so much bureaucracy you have to go through, and it's impossible if you're at a place mentally or emotionally where you really need it. 

I also think there's a really big separation in the German system. The people practicing are predominantly white and predominantly cis. And these aren’t even the people who can accept health insurance. In order to be able to accept health insurance as a therapist, you have to go through 1,000 hoops that are also on fire, so a lot of people end up in situations where they’re paying out of pocket. It’s really unfortunate. 

You started the Queer Black Therapy Fund as a means of addressing the difficulties queer BIPOC have in accessing mental health services, as well as the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on these communities in particular. Can you elaborate on the ways in which racism and other vectors of oppression systematically affect marginalized communities, and the effect that can have on an individual's mental health?

It's a big, big question. Mental health systems are a bit outdated and classist. If you want to have access to mental health care, you need to have adequate health insurance, or you need to be able to pay for this service out of pocket. If you don't have the kind of disposable income to access that, then you aren't able to access care. 

There’s also a lot of gatekeeping in the training courses as well, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it’s often suggested not to work alongside a master's program or a higher education program. So this access to higher education becomes a barrier for many people. You look at the people training in the mental health field—and who are now the providers of mental health care—and they're middle or upper class, white, typically cis hetero. 

Then from the other end, if we talk about how racism impacts an individual's mental health, we're talking about the stress that comes from the kind of discrimination that might be a barrier to accessing a job, to accessing adequate pay, to accessing education. There’s stress that comes with having to navigate these systems of oppression and to even just move through the world on a day-to-day basis. 

Has your goal of supporting 10 queer black people in Berlin been successful? Do you have any goals to grow this project into a larger, longer-term therapeutic network?

When I started it, I thought it would be easier. But now I'm thinking that I need to see how I could do it in a more sustainable way. I'm still in the process of raising funds, but I am not seeing clients. The goal was to raise €65,000 to provide a year of counseling to 10 queer Black people living in Germany. And I decided to make it one year because there are so many counseling offers out there that offer short-term counseling, meaning that you're meeting with a counselor once a week for six or twelve weeks. And I think this is a great form of support, but with people who experience racism and other forms of discrimination, there's so much work to do. That amount of time just isn't enough. I wanted to provide a longer offer for support, essentially. 

I think we’re at about €16,000, which means we’re able to do 15 sessions with each of the 10 people. But we're still in the process of fundraising. So the idea is that as we continue to raise funds, we can fund more sessions of therapy. 

My long-term goal is that I really want to create this small network of therapists who are calm and competent in working with issues around race or sexuality. In my training course, I think I was one of two queer people, and I was the only Black person. So I have always been very interested in meeting other queer therapists and other Black therapists, especially in a field that is so dominated by white professionals. 

My dream would be to have a counseling center of sorts for queer BIPOC people. And then, of course, this would be funded either by the government or a wealthy private sponsor. But the goal is to have a hub where mental health care and wellness in general is the focus. Healing doesn't only take place in mind. We can think about things to death and process things, but I think there are some things that need to be healed, especially for people who have experienced emotional or physical trauma. This is a bigger plan for years to come.

How do we collectively help people access mental health services who maybe don't have the means to access them? Are there ways to move towards creating an environment in which there are more practicing therapists who come from the communities they’re helping and understand the issues they face? It almost seems like an intractable problem that's just going to perpetuate. 

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like there’s so much work to be done. I think it would be extremely beneficial to have more diverse mental health professionals. It's really ridiculous that as a Black therapist, it's so challenging for me to meet other Black therapists. It shouldn't be this difficult. So I think that's one end of things—addressing discrimination. And then the other end comes down to capitalism, I guess, and actual funding. 

Collectively, bonds can be collected and redistributed in order to support Black mental health. Like, that's one way of doing things. But I think it's really a problem that really needs creative solutions. I have a colleague here in Berlin doing a super amazing project called Expanding Circles. And the idea behind that initiative is creating a culture of community care based on volunteering. So as I understand it, a therapist can volunteer their time to see clients, and then clients can work with a certain therapist, but instead of an exchange of money, there is an exchange of volunteer hours. So the client chooses how they want to volunteer their time  in exchange for therapy. It takes away so many barriers. 

I also feel like there's a lot of learning that can be really beneficial to an individual outside of the counseling room in the meantime. Learning more about mental health can help you understand your mental health a bit more and what you might be dealing with. And this isn't to encourage people to read things online and then try to diagnose themselves. What I mean is learning new ways to cope and heal on your own while you're in this waiting space for support. I also think this culture of checking in on one another and having sober spaces to connect with others is so important. 

Are there any other resources where you’d like to direct readers who might be interested in learning more, or in need of mental health support themselves?

There’s a book I can't shut up about and it's called Forest Bathing: How Getting Out in Nature Can Heal Your Body and Mind. This is a really amazing tool, because we can access nature so easily. And more recently I’ve been reading a book about breath. It's called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. It talks about how the breath can be a really important tool in healing and in bridging this mind-body connection that I was speaking about before. You can similarly explore movement or somatic practices. 

Is there anything else you want to talk about that I didn’t think to ask?

I want to encourage people to seek mental health support when they’re not in a crisis, like when they’re feeling okay, good, amazing. I think this is a really good time to look for mental health support because you have the capacity to do that. If you wait until you are not feeling well and then look for support, things can get tricky and get challenging really quickly. Any time is a good time to be in therapy.

Listen to Kemoy Jemmott’s monthly talk show on mental health, Convos with Kemoy, on Refuge Worldwide here. You can learn more about her work on her website.