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'They can come in here yell and scream and not feel judged': Valley counselor healing trauma in Black communities

A desire to prevent and help process traumas and tragedies is why Sharli Berry made the transition from 911 operator to become a licensed professional counselor.

PHOENIX — You can call her a dealer of hope. Sharli Berry has made it her life’s mission to help others in times of crisis.

For 14 years, she worked as a 911 dispatcher for Phoenix police.

“As an operator, a dispatcher, you have to keep moving; you have to go to the next call. It was really hard not knowing how some of the calls ended," said Berry. 

A desire to prevent and help process traumas and tragedies is why she made the transition from operator to become a licensed professional counselor.

For the past ten years, she has been on a mission to give people a safe space to confide, cry and cope with life’s ups and downs, chaos and confusion.

“For some of them, I’m their very first counselor. Some of them don’t know what to do when they come in. I need that person to be comfortable enough with me so they can open up and be honest with me about what’s going on,” she said. 

Berry has tried to break down the walls and stigmas of mental health in one particular community: Her own.

“Mental health is trending in the Black community, and I’m not upset about it. That’s one trend that I can get on board with,” said Berry.

She said for generations, African Americans have not been on board with conversations on mental health for a variety of reasons,

“Growing up in East St. Louis, there were so many opportunities that I can see now that there were mental health issues or concerns. In our neighborhood, unfortunately, we had nicknames for these people. Because when we were younger, you don't know that that's actually a mental health issue,” she said.

Berry said there have been issues of social stigmas in the African American community where mental health was considered a sign of weakness.

There’s also a history of trust among African Americans when it comes to healthcare coverage, a lack of coverage, or not having access at all.

She also points to the socio-economic challenges that some African Americans face.

“We have to start with why we weren’t seeking help, to begin with,” Berry questions.

She is a rarity in the world of mental health.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are an estimated 41,000 psychiatrists and psychologists in the United States.

For African Americans in the profession. Berry said that number is around 4%. 

Despite the low numbers, she is in high demand.

“A lot of my clients have come in and are specifically looking for Black therapists. They email me, text me, send me messages on Facebook and social media,” said Berry.

As Arizona’s Black population grows, so will the need for Black mental health experts.

Berry said many are looking for someone who can relate to unique challenges, experiences, and problems that African Americans deal with.

“That is one the hardest thing our community has to experience is not having a safe place to express without looking at them and calling them aggressive, or an angry Black woman, or angry Black man. They can come in here yell and scream, not be frustrated or angry and not feel judged,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for African-Americans ages 15-24.

Black men are four times more likely to commit suicide than Black women.

Berry said two years of COVID-19, and traumas from a number of high-profile police incidents involving Black men, have pushed many to her door to get the help they need.

Black or white, Berry encourages any and everyone who needs mental health services to look around to find the best fit for them.

“Get the help. Come talk to us. We’re confidential. We’re not in the streets giving your business to everybody. This is a safe environment. We want our community to be healthy. If we’re healthy, then we’re all striving.”

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