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Richmont Faculty Spotlight – Dr. Sonja Sutherland

  1. What are your roles at Richmont Graduate University?

Dr. Sutherland is an Associate Professor of Counseling at Richmont Graduate University’s School of Counseling, and the inaugural Director of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion. She also serves as the Dean of Assessment, Planning & Accreditation, overseeing strategic planning, and program and institutional accreditation.

  1. What do you love about working at Richmont?

What I love most about being at Richmont is connecting with students, past and present. Contributing to and watching both the personal and professional growth of current students as they walk through the program is one of my most enjoyable professional endeavors. Just this week I experienced the pleasure of reconnecting with Richmont alum. I have enjoyed not only the faculty-student relationships while they were here, but also those ongoing relationships where we talk about their post-graduation achievements and challenges, and even collaboration on research and other professional projects.  It’s a joy to continue watching and contributing to their growth, even after they’ve left the doors of Richmont. Although though the pandemic has led to a great deal more interaction virtually than in person, these connections have not deteriorated in any way.

  1. Tell us about your counseling expertise.

In the field of counseling since 1998, and licensed since 2001, Dr. Sutherland has provided therapeutic services in the private practice, psychiatric residential, in-home, and outpatient mental health settings, for adolescents and adults, through individual, group, couples, and family therapy. She has specialized in working with adolescents, couples and families for the last 22 years. One of Dr. Sutherland’s historical research interests has been evidence-based treatment within residential settings for commercially sexually exploited youth, which was a primary focus of her clinical expertise during her years as a clinician in the psychiatric residential setting. Her ongoing research interests include counselor cultural competence development and counselor supervision.  Within the last 5 years, Dr. Sutherland has provided training, researched, and published in the areas of racial trauma, counselor cultural competence development and training, provision of culturally-informed clinical intervention and supervision, and social justice advocacy. Dr. Sutherland’s primary clinical practice currently centers on providing clinical supervision services to post-master’s clinicians pursuing licensure. 

During her years in the field, Dr. Sutherland has also served as a Director of Mental Health and Clinical Services for mid – large sized outpatient mental health organizations providing therapeutic intervention in the Cobb, Atlanta, and Stone Mountain areas. In this capacity, Dr. Sutherland provided strategic and financial direction, administrative oversight and accountability for clinical service provision, as well as clinical supervision for mental health professionals providing services to the community at large.

Dr. Sutherland is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in the state of Georgia, a Board Certified Telemental Health Counselor (BC-TMH), and an Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS). Dr. Sutherland earned her PhD (Counselor Education and Supervision) from Regent University, Masters of Science (Professional Counseling) from Georgia State University, and Bachelor of Science (Psychology) from New York University.

During the last 30 years, Dr. Sutherland has served as a guest lecturer, trainer and presenter for various state, regional and national counselor professional organizations including the ACES, SACES, ASERVIC, CAPS, GCCA, AMHCA, and LPCAGA. Additionally, she has provided training for social, civic, educational and clinical organizations such as Esyr, Kaiser, the University of Georgia, Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, Skyland Trail, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Certification Board of Georgia, the Foster Families Treatment Association, the Woman’s Missionary Union of New York, the Women’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy, Elite Women of Excellence, local churches, and various mental health agencies.

My Personal Endeavors

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Sutherland is the founder and CEO of Legacy Changers Worldwide, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing family education and mental and emotional wellness resources. The Legacy Changers Worldwide umbrella has provided support through the Legacy Changers Counseling Center, The Family Healing RoomVASAYO, and previously as host of a local Atlanta talk-radio show focusing on family relationships and mental wellness. In addition, Dr. Sutherland is an NBCC approved provider of continuing education for mental health professionals, and provides postgraduate training and supervision through Legacy Professional Development & Training, LLC. 

  1. Historically, the BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) community has struggled with the stigma related to mental health counseling. This struggle seems to be lifting within the BIPOC community such that mental health counseling seems to be accepted. Do you agree or disagree?

Certainly, there are pockets within the BIPOC community where the stigma of mental health is not as prevalent. Some of that may be linked to socio-economic status, age, gender and the like. Overall though, I don’t believe there has been significant dissipation of stigma surrounding mental health support within the BIPOC community. I think the entrenchment of that stigma can be attributed to the strength of some of the primary associations counseling has had with social service institutions. Unfortunately, the introduction of mental health services within the BIPOC community decades ago was often linked to a family’s involvement with social service systems that mandated counseling as part of the overall intervention. As a result, the distrust of structurally racist public and institutional policy within social service agencies was extended to counseling by association. This distrust was compounded by the significant lack of BIPOC counselors to work with these families. Being forced to engage with white mental health professionals who historically were quick to diagnose and medicate severe mental illness, while also denying the experience and impact of structural and interpersonal racism, often served to justify this lack of trust. In the last 30 – 40 years, there hasn’t been a significant shift in the realities of this dynamic. The health and racial pandemics of 2020 highlighted the pervasiveness and often life-threatening impact of systemic and interpersonal racism across multiple human experience domains. For instance, the disproportionately negative impact of the health pandemic for BIPOC was linked directly to poverty, poor healthcare options, and inequitable access to safe housing and educational technology). Additionally, there was stark clarity surrounding the significantly higher vulnerability to police brutality that is experienced by BIPOC. All of this contributes to ongoing mistrust, and extends itself to the mental health field. As has been the case for decades, there is still a significant underrepresentation of BIPOC service providers, and there is still a significant lack of understanding on the part of dominant culture clinicians when it comes to cultural differences and the impact of racial trauma and structural racism. These are some reasons the challenges presented by mental health stigma is still a significant concern.

  1. In 2020, racial injustice of African Americans at the hands of Police Officers and others peaked at unforeseen highs this year.  These injustices caused wide-spread tension across the nation and negative attention across the globe. What advice would you offer people who suffer anxiety, depression, and burnout from the cumulative exposure to racial discrimination via the media?

I think it’s more accurate to say that racial injustice has become more obvious to many within the dominant culture, such that there is no way to deny its reality or continue to pretend to be unaware.  What became more visible because of the media is not new – it’s always been the case. And in reality, what people saw on television was only a fraction of all such cases that occurred this year. Only a few of the more sensationalized incidents were highlighted – George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury. As time has passed, we’ve seen a decrease in media coverage about what is an ongoing and pervasive reality for BIPOC.  Nonetheless, I agree that the increased visibility of the realities of police brutality through the media that we saw in 2020 was indeed traumatic, and influenced unprecedented and wide-spread tension for many in our country and across the globe.  And I think that tension is more than warranted. At the same time, the experience of anxiety, depression, and burnout from the cumulative exposure to racial discrimination via the media has more to do than with just police brutality. And how one manages the emotional and psychological toll of these cumulative exposures can be complicated and thus will take time, and will look different depending on where you sit at the table of injustice.

For some, their expressions of anxiety, depression and/or other traumatic stress response are related to being repeatedly faced with realities they would prefer not be true. For many of these people it is a jarring of their concept of the world, a dismantling of what they have been taught was true but now seems to be otherwise. And rather than avoiding the impact of this, they are instead being pressed in differing ways to confront the answers to questions ranging from “How can this really be true?” and “Why didn’t I know this?” to “What does this mean about me?”. For people who choose to pursue truth, they will need to be ready to also consider all the distressing and potentially unmooring answers to all the questions in between.

For others who have known these truths as evidenced in their own lives, their realities go beyond anxiety and depression to a much more chronically experienced lifelong complex trauma, often referred to in the black community as racial battle fatigue.   More than the witnessing of the racial injustices of 2020 that have been sensationalized by the media, racial battle fatigue represents the accumulation of repeated lifelong exposure to interpersonal and structural microaggressions. It describes the psychological, physiological and behavioral strain that is experienced because of the significant amount of energy that individuals within the BIPOC community expend fighting against daily interaction with racism. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had in the last many months as our nation has experienced the political war playing out within our country. For everyone that connected with me who were members of the BIPOC community, the emotional and psychological strain was tremendous.  The polarization that was driven by our elected leaders was severe, and a great deal of that polarization was characterized within racially and culturally demoralizing messages, and/or had significantly negative impact on the BIPOC community as a whole more than on any other cultural demographic. The large majority (if any) of those messages were never publicly, collectively and demonstratively rebuked by elected officials who held the most power. Because of this what was at truly at stake was the answer to the question – “Do we REALLY matter?”

So, you can see how the ways people suffer are so different, and the reasons and complexity of their anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress are so different.