Researcher Studies Black Fatherhood and Mental Health to Improve Youth Developmental Outcomes

Key Findings

  • Accessibility of mental health services must be improved for Black families and children.
  • Black fathers often feel excluded from many early child services.
  • Emphasizing engagement with Black fathers in child services has positive impacts on the father and child.

As an elementary and high school teacher in Saint Lucia, a small island in the Caribbean, Dr. Alvin Thomas recognized social and developmental challenges preventing disadvantaged children from fully engaging in school. Now an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Thomas studies risk and protective factors for Black families, particularly regarding the mental and physical health of Black boys and fathers. His research directly engages the community to better understand the existing challenges, provide interventions to address them within the community, and communicate his findings to local and state-wide decision makers to create greater societal change.

Dr. Thomas is awarded the 2022 FABBS Early Career Impact Award, as nominated by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), for his scholarship and service in strengthening Black families in the context of roiling racism, historical discrimination, and its multiple iterations in the current North American context.

I saw the sheer brilliance and potential in these children, but also the significant hurdles they would have to overcome. I thought, if I’m seeing it, why should I not do something about it?”

– Alvin Thomas

One of the challenges that Dr. Thomas’ research seeks to redress is accessibility. “Our mental health clinics are often in academic locations. We found it was difficult for Black and Latino individuals to come to us.” He noticed families would have to take workdays off and use multiple buses to commute to the clinic. “And if they did get to the clinic, no one working in these spaces looked like them!”

During his post-doctoral work in an initiative led by University of Michigan collaborators Dr. Polly Gibson and Dr. Cheryl King, Dr. Thomas instead brought the clinic to the community by setting up therapy sessions in community wellness centers. They saw drastically increased participation and buy-in with Black and Latino families.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Thomas and his community partner Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association (RBLWA), convened weekly online support groups for Black men across the US, and even in the Caribbean and Europe. Dr. Thomas and his community partners (RBLWA and Urban League of Madison) were awarded a $1 million grant to investigate mental health and fatherhood support among Black fathers in Wisconsin.

To this end, Dr. Thomas and Co-PI Dr. Tova Walsh recently studied new and expecting Black parents regarding the accessibility of prenatal services, with supplemental funding from the University of Wisconsin Institute for Clinical & Translational Research (ICTR). He focused on understanding paternal involvement in these services. He explained that “overwhelmingly, Black fathers wanted to be involved. However, they did not feel there was space for them. They said, ‘We sit there like a piece of furniture, with doctors ignoring us and even angling screens away from us and just toward the mother.’”

When asked what single message he hopes to communicate to the public and policymakers, Dr. Thomas emphasized that research is often decades in front of public and popular-media perceptions. In contrast to harmful stereotypes, his research within the community finds consistent and clear evidence that Black fathers deeply care about being involved with parenting, but they often feel left out from mental health, physical health, and school systems.

Dr. Thomas points to low-hanging fruit that can be addressed by bringing psychologists and policymakers together. For example, by changing the title of parenting manuals and skill sheets from “Skills for Parents” to “Skills for Mothers and Fathers,” Black fathers that systematically feel excluded from parental services are more directly targeted. Dr. Thomas pointed out that simple, but important solutions such as these are achievable by connecting psychologists with policymakers.

As a more direct intervention, Dr. Thomas has partnered with Dr. Cleopatra Caldwell’s “Fathers and Sons” program to study the effects of improving psychological relationships within nonresident Black families. He emphasized that, “just because a family is separated, does not mean the father is absent.” In this 10-week intervention that focused on improving positive engagements between separated Black fathers and the child and mother, Dr. Thomas and his colleagues have found resounding effects. For fathers, depression and the desire to use tobacco and alcohol were reduced. There were key developmental effects for children, particularly in violence avoidance and fewer risky behaviors, such as drug use and early sexual activity. “This showed us that even when the father is not physically present in the same household, he still has a profound psychological impact on the child.”

The negative effects of discrimination on minoritized children’s physical and mental health are well-documented. However, the effects discrimination that minoritized groups may experience in virtual settings, or vicarious discrimination of watching videos of racism or other prejudices, are unclear. Dr. Thomas advocates for increased funding for this question, as it has important implications for protecting children as schools increasingly utilize virtual settings.

Dr. Thomas wishes to point Black families to an upcoming series of conversations on Black fatherhood that will be posted on his Twitter and Youtube on Juneteenth (June 19th, 2022).

Potential for Future Impact

  • Improving accessibility & effectiveness of mental health services for Black families.
  • Protecting minoritized children from virtual and vicarious discrimination.
  • Improving Black child and father well-being.

Dr. Alvin Thomas is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

The SPSSI 2022 Summer Conference takes place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 24-26, 2022. See more about the conference here

Read more about Dr. Thomas’ work at the links below: 

Early Career Award, ECA, ECA 2022, SPSSI