How Mental Health Apps Can Help BIPOC Access Care

Exhale app.

Verywell / Exhale

Key Takeaways

  • People of color often struggle to access mental healthcare.
  • Teletherapy and mental health apps can break down some barriers to mental health access by connecting users with therapists, meditations, and other mental health resources. 
  • Exhale was an app created for BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, Women of Color) as a means to heal and cope with racial trauma and oppression.

For Black Americans and other people of color, accessing mental healthcare can be a challenge. As experts shine a light on barriers to access during July's Minority Mental Health Month, they're hopeful the rise of mental health apps can help.

Recognizing a need for representative mental healthcare, Katara McCarty, social worker and entrepreneur, founded Exhale, a mental health app providing emotional well-being resources for Black, Indigenous, women of color (BIWOC). 

The idea behind Exhale came from George Floyd’s, an African American man murdered by a police officer, last words: “I can’t breathe.”

“That’s been my community’s outcry for over 400 years, systems of oppression, that knee has been on our neck,” McCarty tells Verywell. “I thought, what if we could access resources to help us get back to our breath, to exhale, to really breathe?” 

Struggling With Mental Health

Increasingly, incidents of police brutality are being filmed and circulated through the media and social media apps. But communities of color can experience harm and trauma with a constant inundation of these acts of violence on their screens.

“We know that people of color can have vicarious trauma from police brutality,” Jessica Jackson, PhD, licensed psychologist and global diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging care lead at Modern Health, tells Verywell.

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a form of trauma typically experienced by people working in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire department, and other professions that expose people to trauma and violence.

Jackson says that seeing videos or photos of people experiencing violence can also be a form of vicarious trauma. Exposure to this type of media, especially for people of color, can erode mental health, she adds.

Barriers to Getting Help

Stigmatization surrounding mental healthcare can prevent people from seeking help even when they are in crisis or not feeling their best, Jackson says. 

Access to insurance is another key struggle. In 2018, 11.5% of Black adults in the U.S. had no form of health insurance.

Based on the U.S. Census Bureau Data, African Americans were also 7.3 times more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods with little to no access to mental health services.

But when people of color do have access to services, a lack of mental health providers who have similar backgrounds only adds to the problem. In 2016, only 4% of therapists were Asian, 4% were Black, and 5% were Hispanic compared to 84% who were White.

“Historically, this [psychology] is not a field that was accessible to people of color,” Jackson says. Students of color may not be able to afford or have the time to commit to a psychology program due to the program’s exorbitant price tag and length. 

“My PhD program was for four years plus a year of internship plus a year of fellowship," Jackson says. "So that’s essentially six years that somebody has to be able to commit to without really making a lot of income.”

How Mental Health Apps Can Help

During the pandemic, high demand for mental health services led to a shortage of providers, However, Jackson says that a rise in popularity for teletherapy apps can help improve access.

“So what mental health apps do is connect people with a therapist.” She adds that these apps can provide support outside of therapy sessions, including meditations that allow for healing and unpacking of racial trauma. 

“I think apps really increase access by making it easier to get access to resources to help determine what you do need,” Jackson says. 

These services can differ in features. Before purchasing an app, Jackson recommends signing up for a free trial.

“All apps are not created equal," Jackson says. "Somebody might realize meditations are not helpful for me, I actually need sleep hygiene tips so I need to find a different app that offers me that."

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know needs immediate mental health help, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It's confidential, free, and runs 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year. It's available in English and Spanish. If you call this helpline, they can give you referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and other organizations.

The Exhale App and Other Resources

The Exhale app includes guided meditations that weave in topics of oppression, microaggressions, and anti-Blackness, McCarty says. She adds that incorporating the aforementioned topics can aid in releasing stress, trauma, and anxiety as a result of oppression. 

“There are breathwork techniques that you can pause and center yourself," McCarty explains. "We also have guided imaging, which takes the user on an internal journey to assess where they are with their emotions and where they are with their trauma, hurt, and pain."

Currently, the app is free to download and use. McCarty and her team are working on a second version of the app, which will include a pay what you can model.

In the new version, community events, meditations, breathwork exercises, and coaching talks will remain free. “We want to make sure it’s accessible,” McCarty says. 

Jackson and McCarty both agree that apps are not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are other mental health resources available for the BIPOC community, including:

“Because systems of oppression and systemic racism are making us emotionally and physically ill, we have to make these resources easily accessible to Black and Brown communities,” McCarty says. “It’s for our survival.” 

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Office for Victims of Crime. What is Vicarious Trauma? 

  2. Kaiser Family Foundation. Changes in Health Coverage by Race and Ethnicity since the ACA, 2010-2018.

  3. American Psychological Association. African Americans Have Limited Access to Mental and Behavioral Health Care.

  4. American Psychological Association. Number of Active Psychologists by Race/Ethnicity, 2007-2016

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.