What does it mean to be Black and mentally ill? For a lot of people in the Black community, it translates to being Black and alone; Black and afraid; Black and isolated or Black and self-medicated. The inner city is flooded with liquor stores, trap spots and churches, sending the message that to fix our problems we either pray about them or drink and smoke them away.
We all know that the foundations of psychology nor the principles of its origin did not have people of color in mind. While others were taught to speak about their problems and get to the root with psychotherapy, the Black culture was conditioned to keep secrets and never acknowledge the truth. We (the Black culture) don’t share our problems, and from the mouth of every head of household comes, “What goes on in this house, stays in this house.”
For centuries, the Black community has fought its way through the negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors that stemmed from complex trauma. From slavery to systematic oppression to societal discrimination, the Black community and other people of color have had to find their own way through the healing process.
Over the past few years, the importance of accessing quality mental health treatment in Black and brown communities has increased. It is 2022, and many people are now asking the question that everyone wants to know the answer to: “Do Black people go to therapy?” The short answer to that is “yes” — but they don’t stay there.
Black and brown communities have felt ostracized in their ability to find mental health treatment that fits them. This has led many of them to feel discouraged and unheard. Before we ask people of color to “heal” or to go to therapy, we must first identify the types of clinicians who are more beneficial to their recovery.
What type of clinician is truly beneficial to people of color?
1. A clinician who is trustworthy
People of color have experienced so much that they can identify disingenuous behaviors a mile away. They can tell when someone isn’t really concerned or only interested in reporting their bad habits, and there’s often a worry that a clinician who isn’t of color just doesn’t understand. Lack of trust is one of the strongest barriers many people of color face when it comes to exploring and successfully completing therapy.
2. A clinician who is relatable
People of color want to speak to people who look like them, share similar experiences or at least can identify with the stories they may share in therapy. They want to know that they don’t have to explain what “soul food” is or what it means when they use jargon or terms of slang, such as “cap’n” or “bogus.” They want clinicians who don’t behave as if they’ve never been hurt, betrayed or mistreated.
3. A clinician who is culturally competent
What’s more important than a clinician who is relatable? One who is culturally competent. A clinician who understands a world outside of themselves and can validate the experiences and lifestyles of others without making clients of color feel less than or inferior is a very powerful clinician.
People of color want to feel comfortable speaking about memories with cousins who are more like siblings or how their aunts, uncles or grandparents had a hand in raising them, without being made to feel like they were orphans or unloved. Kinship is powerful in the Black and brown communities, and people of color need clinicians who understand it, embrace it and accept it.
4. A clinician who is race-conscious
To be race-conscious means to be fully aware of your privilege as it compares to other races. To know the adversity or the setbacks people of color face as opposed to one’s own race is crucial when helping people of color heal from their trauma or navigate their mental health successfully. A racially conscious clinician would know not to ask a Black male to purchase a toy gun to help with anger management. Similarly, they would not suggest trying to reason with law enforcement should they ever be stopped by an officer. They would know to validate the experiences people of color may face, institutionally or otherwise, without making them feel like racism is a thing of the past.
The key to having therapy that works for people of color begins with the clinician. It is up to us to create a safe environment for everyone, especially people of color, to be heard, to be seen and to heal.
Sharonda Brown, MA NCC LPC, a.k.a. Nya B, is a therapist, author and speaker who knows that many people within the Black community have felt ostracized, discouraged and unheard when it comes to therapy.