Column: Soul Werk Cafe, a Black-owned mental health care provider in Richton Park, focuses on healing souls

“You may feel stuck right now, not knowing how to address all the feelings that are coming up. You may be sifting through anger, pain, exhaustion, even fatigue; feeling a sense of powerlessness.”

That statement appears on the website of Richton Park-based mental health care provider Soul Werk Cafe along with its commitment to help clients heal.

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“The therapy work we do is more than just helping folks learn how to cope with injustices, discrimination and the environmental factors that cause emotional and psychological disease,” said Shaniqua Ford, founder, owner and CEO of the African American owned and run private practice, which focuses on serving Black and brown clients.

“Our work heals the soul. The work we do gets down to the root or ‘soul’ of things, which is the only way folks can, in my opinion, truly find alignment, balance and the healing that they desire,” Ford said.

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Ford, 39, is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in clinical, medical social work from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in social work from Governors State University. She has more than a decade of experience in mental health, holistic wellness, trauma, grief and ancestral healing practices.

Her Soul Werk Cafe provides individual and group therapy counseling, and the practice sees roughly 200 individual clients a month, she said. Focus areas include cultural identity and belonging. Therapists counsel clients whose mental health has suffered due to racism and microaggressions — instances of subtle indirect discrimination. They also provide therapy to clients who work or go to school in predominantly white institutions and experience isolation due to a lack of an available diverse cultural community or because of so-called “othering,” said Ford.

Othering is a pattern of prejudicial exclusion or marginalization.

Clients include individuals from multicultural or mixed-race family systems who experience isolation associated with a lack of acceptance on either side, or feeling they must choose a side, Ford said.

Other areas of focus include life transitions, grief and loss, anxiety and stress, depression and chronic sadness, trauma and living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Soul Werk Cafe also does corporate trainings and facilitates workshops on maintaining mental health and emotional wellness.

Ford chose to enter the mental health counseling field in part because of the low representation of African American psychologists. They only account for about 5% of the national total, she said. She also entered the field because her life experiences helped her understand there are social determinants of mental health, she shared.

“Social determinants of mental health are connectedness, poverty, living environment, chronic and constant community violence, poor nutrition,” she said. “All these things lead to mental health decline because those basic needs are not met.”

Individuals in those situations can build great levels of resilience, “but to what to end and at what cost” from a mental health standpoint, she said.

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Due to insufficient numbers of professional therapists of color, when African Americans and other racial groups take the step to seek mental health resources, the pool of therapists includes many who don’t understand certain values and beliefs in communities of color and who don’t take those values and beliefs into account as they counsel clients, Ford said.

“The way we do therapy at Soul Werk is that we are intentional in highlighting those cultural values and beliefs,” she said. “We also make space to bring in their lived experiences and social determinants that contribute to (mental health) decline. That also includes racialized trauma, intergenerational trauma.”

She adds Soul Werk also “makes space for folks to bring in their faith tradition.”

Ford said she understands the positive role that spirituality and religion play in Black and brown communities. But she noted spirituality and religion can be detrimental if, for example, someone facing mental health challenges doesn’t seek out needed professional counseling because they believe they can “pray it away” versus their “having conversations and seeking out professional support that can work in conjunction with faith.”

At Soul Werk, which has five therapists and two therapy interns, all African American, “we’ve tried to make sure our clinicians and therapists reflect the communities we serve,” Ford said.

Besides serving Black and brown communities, a focus is on serving members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual community and clients with nondominant and dominant faith traditions and spirituality practices, she said.

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Before launching Soul Werk Cafe, Ford worked in an inpatient psychiatric unit in Harvey, an outpatient psychiatric facility in Joliet in substance abuse counseling and at a community mental health site on the Southeast Side of Chicago, she said.

“Community mental health is great,” said Ford. “It allows you to serve Black and brown populations, but there’s a lot of bureaucracy.”

She began practicing privately in 2019 and incorporated Soul Werk Cafe in 2020. She decided to launch her own practice to “create a space where folks felt like they were with community, with tribe and with village,” she said.

That entails honoring all the professional limitations that are in place as it relates to regulation, licensure and professional requirements, “but also offering folks therapy and emotional support that met them where they were but offered a vision of what they could accomplish and show up to be,” she shared.

That includes helping clients rebuild and repair major relationships in their lives and within themselves.

“Our motto is that once you enter this healing journey and process, as you’re healing you heal everything that is connected to you,” she said.

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The planning and treatment process begins with conversations about values and beliefs and building a community care plan.

“As people begin to deal with old traumas, they need support that goes beyond what you get with me for one hour a week,” she said.

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Clients are asked who they have in their lives “who can help support you on your journey. If you say nobody, we do work around what does that look like and why, what does it look like to repair relationships,” said Ford.

Asked what trends she has observed among clients since the start of the continuing COVID-19, pandemic, she said anxiety and depression are leading folks to seek counseling. They are worried about their work environments and what happens if they contract COVID-19, and how that would affect their families and income.

Some people have been depressed about having to return to the office because they are going back into situations where “underlying oppressive factors of racism come into play, identity politics and economics around who gets to stay home and who doesn’t,” she said.

But she has also observed among clients a focus on autonomy and self-care.

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“This pandemic has highlighted where people are dissatisfied, and they are recognizing they have more control to change their course than they previously believed that they had,” she said.

Francine Knowles is a freelance columnist for the Daily Southtown.

Fknowles.writer@gmail.com

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