Layla Asamarai, who was born in Baghdad and moved to the U.S. as a toddler, poses for a photo in the waiting room at the Luminous Mind clinic in Roseville, Minnesota, on Wednesday, March 22. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

Inside The Luminous Mind in Roseville, you’ll find Middle Eastern hospitality—free tea and coffee at the table in the waiting area.

For owner and psychologist Layla Asamarai, comfort starts at the door.

“In order to appreciate the decolonization of psychotherapy, one has to realize that psychotherapy is a colonized practice, as it is employed today in the world,” said Asamarai.

Decolonizing mental health services: That’s a big reason she opened her practice in 2019. Asamarai says it’s necessary to recognize the limitations of Western psychology, which primarily focuses on the individual and nuclear family of origin. She says at The Luminous Mind, clients are identified as the expert in themselves and their experiences.

The Luminous Mind utilizes psychological diagnoses with understanding that many of the diagnoses were based on a majority western and white client population. Asamarai wants to change that.

The entrance to the Luminous Mind clinic in Roseville, Minnesota. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

“The ways in which people are expected to show up, what they’re expected to talk about, concepts of boundaries, concepts of relational attachment, what’s normal, what’s not, these are not test tube values, these are western values,” she said.

The clinic employs psychologists from various religious and cultural backgrounds with the goal of not only anticipating treating people from different cultures, but inviting those differences in. Providers are transparent about their own intersecting identities, privileges, and lived experiences.

“We ask our clients about their traditions, about their ethnicities, their backgrounds, what matters to them, their values, what’s important to them,” said Asamarai. “And so it’s a model in which we’re, we’re looking for and noticing all that makes our client who they are.”

The Luminous Mind includes a quiet prayer room in its clinic in Roseville, Minnesota. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

This is the culturally-responsive part of the work—with the purpose of reminding patients of color there’s no need to justify or explain their stories, because the psychologist listening likely understands from similar experiences.

Some experts say the field of mental health care needs to diversify.

Carolyn Berger is a program coordinator and associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota.

“Psychology has been rooted in western practices,” said Berger. “Psychology and counseling in general was developed by white people, for white people.”

That’s why Berger says much of this work starts at school. Getting more students of color into programs leads to more representation in the workforce. But Berger says there are barriers when it comes to getting students of color into masters or doctorate-level counseling programs.

Layla Asamarai flips through an anthology about Islamic psychology. She contributed a chapter about marital counseling. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Our graduation rates are very high,” said Berger. “But I will say that the students who, in the last two, three years, students who are having to take a leave of absence, or students, you know, mainly due to financial barriers, it’s definitely predominantly students of color.”

Berger says along with efforts to address lack of funding and to fight for state and national grants, there are classes in the U’s program focused on counseling diverse populations, and faculty are encouraged to train on culturally-responsive practices.

She says they’ve gone through the curriculum to integrate more culturally-responsive reference material and make sure it’s inclusive.

“Because in the past, we noticed, that was a big issue where students of color were saying they felt like the training was geared towards white students as well,” she said.

Overall, the country has seen an increase in psychologists of color. According to the American Psychological Association, between 2000 and 2019, the number of psychologists of color more than doubled from 7,140 to close to 19,000.

“We ask our clients about their traditions, about their ethnicities, their backgrounds, what matters to them, their values, what’s important to them,” says Asamarai. “it’s a model in which we’re looking for and noticing all that makes our client who they are.” Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

The latest data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows that 73 percent of psychiatrists and 88 percent of mental health clinicians in the state are white and less than two percent of psychiatrists in Minnesota are Black.

The state created a culturally-informed mental health task force, which makes recommendations in several areas, including cultural competency training and recruiting diverse mental health professionals.

The task force ends in January 2025.

Local lawmakers are working to secure more funding for culturally-responsive care.

State Representative Ruth Richardson is working to pass a bill that would ensure more culturally informed services are available in the state. The bill would provide $1.5 million of funding to the African American Child Wellness Institute—a mental health organization focused on working with families in communities of color.

Layla Asamarai shows MPR News reporter Sarah Thamer an anthology on Islamic psychology in the Luminous Mind offices in Roseville, Minnesota, on Wednesday, March 22. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

“You know, oftentimes when we talk about the importance of representation and diversity within the mental health field, it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but it’s a recognition that across the health care field, and across the spectrum of practices, that representation is actually life saving,” Richardson said.

At The Luminous Mind, Asamarai says the mission is more than making sure those needs are being met—but that the providers aren’t being tokenized in the process.

“Actually mentoring and providing correct supervision, training with integrity, supervision with integrity, so that our providers, whether they stay here, or they go to serve somewhere else, they’re providers that are being honored and feel good about the work that they’re doing.”

Minnesota’s changing population is driving an increased demand for culturally-responsive mental health care. The more than 100 people on the waiting list at The Luminous Mind are a testament to that need.

Sarah Thamer is a senior reporter for the MPR News Race, Class and Communities team.