At the age of 16, Gail Wyatt, PhD, enrolled at Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville. While there, she had an encounter with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that showed her she was on the right track in her quest to become a psychologist.
On May 3, 1964, Rev. King visited Fisk University following a sit-in at Morrison’s Cafeteria – where demonstrators had been urging support of a public accommodations bill. Dr. Wyatt was late and had to squeeze through the standing-room-only crowd to watch him speak.
“After he finished, he said if anyone wanted to come down and shake his hand, they could,” she says. “I went down and stood in line and when it got to my turn, he spent a little time with me, asking my name and what I wanted to be.”
She told him she wanted to be a clinical psychologist and at that time, intended to work with children. Rev. King asked her to, “tell our story, our story as Black people,” she says.
“He said to me, ‘I want you to reach back and help other people.’”
Dr. Wyatt is now a licensed clinical psychologist and professor-in-residence of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
She was the first person of color to become a licensed psychologist in California, the first Black woman to be named to full professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the first person of color to receive training as a sexologist.
Her research has focused on consensual and abusive sexual relationships and the behavioral effects of those experiences on substance-using and marginalized groups, with the ultimate aim of understanding and reducing health disparities among vulnerable populations.
Education and faith-based values were staples of Dr. Wyatt’s upbringing in Fort Worth, Texas and Los Angeles. As the granddaughter of a Methodist minister and a third-generation college graduate, “we had very well-defined rules and expectations about how we would grow up and what we would do,” she says.
“We all knew that finishing something you started, being educated and creating a positive idea about who you are was part of the package.”
She came across the field of psychology while thumbing through a book on careers in the Susan Miller Dorsey High School Library.
“It was a huge book. I couldn't even pick it up, so I had to look at it in the aisle,” she says. She read about behavior, the inner workings of the brain, and how “the way that we relate to people has everything to do with our happiness and health.”
From then on, she knew what her goal was – but her journey wouldn’t be easy.
At the time, Dr. Wyatt says, getting licensed was a terrifying process. “Nobody I knew had ever taken that test, and nobody had ever passed it if they tried.”
She spent several months studying, crediting her Jewish colleagues at the Semel Institute at UCLA for helping her prepare. “If they didn’t care for me, I wouldn’t have made it,” says Dr. Wyatt, of her colleagues who also faced challenges. “There’s no way to get through some doors in life, unless you know some people who have been through them.”
There were two exams to secure licensure – written and oral. The oral exam was held in a hotel room in Pasadena, she recalls.
“I went in and there were three white men sitting on the bed,” she says. She was asked to stand in front of them and answer their questions. “I answered as best I could but it was such a bizarre setting that it knocked me off balance.”
She spent 45 minutes – longer than any of her peers, she found out – testing with the examiners. Thinking this meant she had failed, she went home and crawled into the fetal position in bed, while her husband took their children to a nearby park.
Weeks later the announcement came in the mail. She had passed – becoming the first Black woman to be licensed as a psychologist in California. The year was 1975.
Dr. Wyatt intended to look into the factors of the psychosexual experiences of Black and white women that affected mental health. But to do the research, she needed funding.
She applied to the National Institutes of Mental Health for a “K” award, which provides grant support for senior postdoctoral fellows or faculty-level candidates.
“They told me this award was not for me,” Dr. Wyatt says, but she resubmitted her application, again and again.
It took her four years and nine submissions to get accepted, becoming the first person of color to receive this type of award and research grant. Her research has helped to define the types of therapy that are better suited for survivors of trauma, and has contributed to the understanding of the effects of sexual trauma on health and mental health.
“I guess the story of that is, don’t take no for an answer,” she says.
Improving mental health in communities of color
The pandemic, Dr. Wyatt says, has had devastating effects on communities of color, especially among people without insurance or mental health services.
To her, one of the worst consequences of COVID-prevention strategies was the trauma from isolation and physical distancing.
“In African-descended and Latinx, Asian and Native American communities, being with family is protective and informative,” she says. “The worst result of isolating at home is not being able to be with people you know and love, not to be able to touch them and not to be able to help them with their health problems.”
To help individuals learn healthy coping strategies, Dr. Wyatt has been leading “Healing our Hearts, Minds and Bodies,” a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded program for HIV-positive patients with cardiovascular disease and with histories of trauma. Patients learn problem-solving techniques, anxiety- and stress-reducing strategies, and emotional regulation.
Additionally, Dr. Wyatt says she aims to better understand the social determinants that affect the lives of Black people, through her work as director for the Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities. That includes improving media portrayals of Black communities.
“My mother's friends were educated and reserved, well-dressed and great mothers and chefs, but I did not see enough Black women who were like them in the media.” she says. “I did not see girls who were interested in developing their talents for careers that they aspired to.”
And not much has changed in the last 50 years, she says.
“Over time, we see more images but they basically reinforce stereotypes,” Dr. Wyatt says. “That is why George Floyd's video was so powerful. Most people think that Black men are criminals and aggressive, especially when they are his size.”
She says she hopes her journey serves as an inspiration for young women of color and sets the record straight “for those who thought it was easier for Black people than it actually has been.”
Dr. Wyatt’s many firsts come from doing what Rev. King asked her to do, she says.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I don't think that should deter anyone from finding their way.”
Learn more about the Center for Culture, Trauma, and Mental Health Disparities at the Jane & Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at UCLA.