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Licensed Counselor Cherie May on therapy: ‘It doesn’t make you crazy; it makes you smart’

Cherie May is the CEO of Work In Progress Counseling. (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)
By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times

Cherie May, a licensed professional counselor, wants to dispel the stigma associated with therapy in the black community.

“I don’t think seeing someone for help makes you crazy; it makes you smart,” said May, a supervisor at Work in Progress Counseling Services LLC in Center Point. “If your car breaks down, you don’t say, ‘I’m not going to a mechanic. People would think something’s wrong with me because I don’t know how to fix my car.’”

May acknowledged that it can be difficult for some people to open up about their personal life to strangers.

Cherie May is the CEO of Work In Progress Counseling. (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)

Source of Support

“During the first few sessions I have [with] someone, I really just get to know them,” she said. “I don’t expect people to come in and tell me their whole life history in the first session, though some people do. … When some people finally make it to counseling they’ve needed to be here for so long that they just dump it all out.”

May is a counselor with more than 12 years of experience working with clients from diverse backgrounds. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Alabama in 1994 and graduated with a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 2005. She has been a counseling supervisor since 2015.

Counselors are a huge source of support, but they don’t have all the answers. Many wrongly look to their therapists to make decisions for them, May said.

“Sometimes, when you’re in a situation a person standing outside of it can better point out some patterns and connections that you may not see,” she said. “People think I’m going to tell them to quit their job, leave their wife, move to Alaska. I’m not going to do that. I don’t have to live with the consequences of your choices. I will outline the pros and cons to help you decide what’s best for you.”

Couch Talk

A common misconception many have in the black community is that counseling is for rich people, May said. That’s why she began Couch Talk, an online session that covers a variety of issues, such as depression, grief, and anxiety, as well as self-care, which takes into account one’s mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.

“One of the reasons I started Couch Talk was because I recognized that people don’t know how affordable, reasonable, and reachable counseling is for them,” she said. “I started there hoping that people will want more information.”

May said, “if you don’t take care of yourself mentally, then everything else goes downhill. When you think of mental health—depression, anxiety, trauma, grief—all those things come into play when you talk about your relationships with other people and your ability to manage your daily life.”

She used depression as an example: “When someone is dealing with depression, their inability to get up and go to work can affect their ability to handle their finances, which can affect their ability to maintain a job, pay their bills, have a house or someplace to live. If you don’t take care of your mental health, it can cause a downward spiral effect in every other area of your life.”

“Why Can’t You Be?”

The toughest people to counsel are those who have no belief outside of themselves, she said.

“Faith plays a very important role,” said May, who recalled the importance of faith in 2002 when she needed help with a set of her own personal issues.

“I think faith in something—who or whatever your God is—keeps people grounded and gives them hope in something bigger than themselves,” she said.

May hasn’t always been a licensed therapist, but she has always been the one person her friends came to about their problems. After one of her friends discovered that their own personal confidant was seeing a therapist, she recalls her friend saying, “You’re going over there and paying someone to talk to them? You should be the counselor.”

“I spoke to my therapist and told her [that] one of my friends said I should be a counselor, and I laughed about it. She said, ‘Why can’t you be?’”

Someone to Help

May specializes in various areas, including minority health issues. African-American problems are no different from others, May said, “we just have the added problem of race.”

All people grieve the loss of family members, jobs, finances, relationships, and other life changes, May said.

“But I do see issue of race among my African-American clients. With the [political turmoil in Washington, D.C.], there’s been a lot of grief, people just hurting because our nation is so divided. I’ve seen several clients who have been affected by it in the workplace and in their families.”

This is one of the reasons it is important to see a counselor or a therapist.

“Here’s an analogy I sometimes share with my clients,” May said. “We’re in this room, and there’s all this furniture. Yes, I can get all this furniture out of here by myself if I work hard enough and struggle long enough. But if I have you to help me, why would I do it by myself? Sometimes it’s just easier to get through life’s struggles if you have someone else to help you.”