Since he was 10 years old, Garfield de Bardelaben knew he wanted to help people.
"I wanted to know what made people tick," he told The Skanner from his office at the new Avel Gordly Center for Healing. "I wanted to know why White people hated Black people … why Black people responded the way they did."
But right now, de Bardelaben isn't helping as many African Americans as he would like. Oregon's first Black psychologist and first Black elected as president of the Oregon Psychological Association, de Bardelaben says the center, which caters to the cultural needs of African Americans, isn't serving as many of the community as it could – and it's not because there isn't a need.
Whether it's because of shame, stigma or a feeling that suffering is a normal part of life, de Bardelaben wants African Americans to overcome their fears. At the center, people from all walks of life can receive assistance from culturally sensitive psychologists and counselors.
And as the future of another mental health center, the Garlington Center, is in question, it is unclear if the Center for Healing will expand its services.
Located in a nondescript building in Downtown Portland, the center, named after the state senator who has advocated for the mentally ill, opened in February and currently serves about 600 patients with 12 counselors and three psychiatrists.
Location, says de Bardelaben, is critical to ensuring patients have privacy in their appointments. A clinic located in the heart of a patient's neighborhood would detract many from seeking help, he said.
Almost everything about the center's planning was made from the viewpoint of cultural understanding and sensitivity.
"You have to be mindful of cultural conditions," he said.
While Cascadia's Garlington Center provides care to many African Americans, that center caters to more acute and chronic cases. There was a need for family and individual care to help deal with depression, chronic pain and disease, marriage problems and other issues that don't require hospitalization.
So what took so long to get a mental health center up and running for African Americans? De Bardelaben describes it as a "confluence of variables."
With Sen. Gordly's leadership in the state legislature, plus the interest of Dr. Norwood Knight-Richardson (a nationally known psychiatrist who now serves as the center's medical director) and the long term planning of the African American Mental Health Commission, government and OHSU funding was committed to the project. The variables to create the center were all in place.
De Bardelaben wants people to know that they don't have to suffer needlessly. While dealing with emotional issues is a part of life, he says uncontrollable depression often comes hand in hand with the Black experience. Singing the blues wasn't just another musical style – it represented the real pains of being part of a subordinate class.
A historical lack of Black psychologists meant you had to see a White psychiatrist – and revealing inner fears and weaknesses was not something African Americans were eager to do in a time of widespread racism.
What many people may not understand, says de Bardelaben, is that it is both illegal and unethical to disclose anything that is discussed during a therapy session, regardless of the skin color of the counselor.
"People don't even have to know you're here, unless you want to tell them," he said.
A former linguist who speaks several languages, de Bardelaben says he has traveled all over the world and studied a wide range of cultures.
Other counselors at the center share this open-minded multicultural background.
Bounsang Khamkeo, a counselor from Laos, has mainly patients from East and Southeast Asian countries. Khamkeo, who speaks about six different languages, says his patients, who range from first to fourth generation immigrants, pose unique cultural challenges. Alcohol abuse and gambling are the main problems of his community and the same stigmas about seeking counseling help remain. Even court-mandated counseling is sometimes ignored.
"They don't want to display their feelings in public or to a stranger," he said.
Glen Maynard, the center's director, de Bardelaben and Khamkeo all believe that word of mouth will play a huge role in helping people discover the benefits of culturally relevant counseling.
Maynard says they are reaching out to many community organizations and they plan to partner with African American churches in the area with the help of the Rev. W.G. Hardy, chair of the African American Health Commission.
Currently, the mental health services provided through the county are in peril. Cascadia, the county's contracted provider, is struggling financially and county officials announced earlier this month they would be transferring services to other agencies.
Glen Maynard, the Center for Healing's director, said it was too soon to tell if the Center for Healing would take on patients from Cascadia. The Center for Healing receives money from the county, and Maynard says they were careful not to duplicate services already provided through Cascadia.
Although the county had initially planned to close the Garlington Center, a mental health center that serves a large number of minority patients, community members protesting en masse at a community meeting on June 30 seemed to change the minds of the decisionmakers. Sen. Gordly was present at the meeting to advocate for the Garlington Center's continued operation
Sen. Gordly says the future of the county's mental health services are "evolving by the hour." Some of that conversation includes what services the Center for Healing could offer to former Cascadia patients, but she said it's important that relationships between patients and counselors at the Garlington Center continue intact.
"As I listen to clients talk, people need to feel hope," she told The Skanner. "They're fighting for themselves, but people need to know we're fighting for them as well."
You can contact the Avel Gordly Center for Healing at 503-494-4745. Their offices are located at 621 SW Alder St., Suite 520. Services are by appointment only.