Mental health professionals are rarely POC, and the conversation surrounding this issue is the result of deeply embedded stigmatization in the community.
Mental health services are an essential part of healthcare, and having therapists who can relate to the clients they serve is just as crucial. Many POC do not feel comfortable with white therapists. Having people of color work with this population—especially Black youth or POC—is important. Not only do they need to see positive images of Black people in their communities, they need to feel understood by someone who is helping them as they face adversities that are race-related.
The stigma that breeds most people’s unwillingness to enter the field could be accredited to the white centrism of mental health that is evident in self-help books, memoirs, YouTube videos and peer support groups. The conversation is so often started by non-POC that it is hard to see ourselves as part of it.
In turn, this makes friends, family and mental health professionals less likely to see we are struggling. There is no mirroring of our symptoms—in other words, we don’t see people like us suffering in similar ways, nor do we see anyone like us who will understand, which leaves most to doubt our experiences and the severity of our mental health issues.
There are certain conversations about race, police brutality, cultural traditions, discrimination, absent fathers, mass incarceration and even President Donald Trump that can be less difficult to have and discussed more freely.
Going to seek help, either peer support or therapy, often means asking white people to carry some of the burden they literally can’t bear or fully understand.
In the article “Staying The Course: Psychotherapy In The African-American Community,” Old Dominion University psychology professor Janis Sanchez-Hucles said that in her 20 years of experience, she has had many colleagues approach her expressing their “confusion and perplexity about how to treat African-Americans and how to conduct the kind of successful first session that increases the chances that the client will return.”
These doctors’ uncertainty about how to approach a Black person during therapy does not mean they aren’t skilled or educated, it just shows the meaning and significance of cultural competence in psychotherapy.
In years past, according to research gathered by AfricanAmericanTherapist.com, there were few therapists of color, and many of them were in addiction clinics, working with the courts or in city and county mental health clinics.
Therapy should be a place where you don’t have to be on guard, where you aren’t concerned about how you might be seen or understood. Where your pauses, indirect gaze and body language are not misinterpreted and where the provider is likely to understand what you mean.
The mental health care system is not only different for people of color to navigate, but it also leaves out some of our communities’ most effective resources. Not everyone who’s a licensed mental health professional has the knowledge that people of color need in order to heal.