Why You Need a Culturally Competent Therapist

culturally competent therapist

So many of us are hurting right now, as we discover that many of the people aren’t necessarily the allies we thought they were. These troubling behaviors could manifest as microaggressions in the work space, or insensitive comments from uneducated friends. While we can’t control the state of the world, or even exactly how we fit into it, we can choose to be supported by someone who understands where we are — and who we are. For many of us, that may mean a professional who can guide us through anxiety or depression, or help us develop healthy coping skills. If you choose to work with a licensed therapist, they must also be able to speak to your identities.

Psychotherapist Alanna Gardner, MFT, explains, “The weight of being Black in a systemically racist society such as the U.S. has holistic implications on Black people, including our mental and emotional health. When compounded with other marginalized intersecting identities — queer, trans, woman — it can be extremely overwhelming and oppressive.” The combined weight of societal oppression can be incredibly costly to one’s mental health. Gardner further explains, “We owe it to ourselves to not carry the burden of experiencing this by ourselves and to receive some level of care and healing to help us survive the conditions we are forced to live in.”

Black Cultural Norms and Mental Health

Black culture has a long way to go in order to break down the stigma attached to both mental health treatment and toward broader acceptance of mental health conditions. Gardner, who is Black, says, “Culture plays a big part in a Black person’s decisions to seek mental health care. Until recently; therapy wasn’t seen as an option for Black people. We turned to religion, family, or close friends to help us with our problems, if we even chose to open up about our issues.” For many of us, that meant suffering in silence. “Thankfully the tides are changing with this as more Black people have exposure to therapy and Black mental health professionals.”

Now imagine going against cultural norms to seek therapy, only to have the person you’ve entrusted with your secrets make comments that undermine struggles related to your identity. This is what propels the imperative demand for Black therapists. While having a therapist of the same race is important, it is not the sole means of connection and understanding in the client-therapist relationship. The ability to fully see the client’s identity, to empathize and hold space for feelings, and the willingness to attempt to understand the client — without the need to diagnose or be right — can serve as a great foundation for a positive therapeutic relationship.

Finding a Black Therapist

According to the American Psychological Association, only 4% of therapists identify as Black. Additionally, the more complex or severe your condition, the more difficult it may be to find a therapist who looks like you and can provide adequate treatment. For instance, finding a therapist who treats eating disorders or service-connected PTSD in your area may prove difficult enough, but finding one who is also Black and a good fit for your personality, may prove even more disheartening.

The same realities also exist when finding a Black therapist as any other therapist, often simply not being a good fit. Gardner likens finding a quality therapist to dating or forming other relationships, and encourages clients to seek out someone with whom they feel they can form a real connection. She points out that it might take appointments with multiple therapists, perhaps having more than one session with each, to find a great fit. This is likely to be a gateway to better understanding between you and your therapist, creating a more intimate and beneficial dynamic, which ultimately helps you reach your goals for therapy.

Cultural Competency Training for Non-Black Therapists

If you are a white therapist, or one who is “white-adjacent” — someone of minority background who nonetheless benefits from white privilege — know that showing up for your diverse clients means understanding that the work goes beyond listening and empathizing. Gardner recommends removing the burden from these clients to do the educating. “Continuing to pursue your own education and learning around identities,” she says. “It’s not fully our clients’ job to help educate their therapist about what it means to exist in this world as a Black person. Continue to receive training in cultural competency.”

If your client’s challenges are overwhelming or out of your wheelhouse, as with any complex diagnoses, acknowledge that these issues are outside of your core skill set. “Be honest about your not knowing or understanding and, if it comes down to it, transfer your client if you feel you’re causing more harm than good.”

Tips for Addressing Race in Therapy

Talkspace therapists Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT and Catherine Richardson, LPC, remind us that the non-BIPOC therapists are responsible for the following while working with BIPOC clients:

  • Therapists should ask clients questions to help understand their personal history and how they’ve experienced any difficulties related to race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. during the initial assessment.
  • Therapists should include an assessment of racial trauma specifically, while assessing for trauma overall.
  • Both therapists and clients should know that race could be an ongoing, integral part of the therapeutic process, depending on each client’s needs.
  • It’s the job of the therapist to bring up hard subjects. While the client may not always feel comfortable discussing these topics, remind them it’s a safe space.

If you’re a BIPOC client, Ertel and Richardson provided the following tips for bringing up race with your Non-BIPOC therapist:

  • If you’re feeling reserved, get curious. Is it because of your personal discomfort or are you feeling unsafe with your counselor? Regardless of the answer, therapy is the space to process this.
  • Be honest if it’s difficult for you to talk about race with a non-Black person. Therapy is the place to process your fears and worries.
  • Share your reactions to recent events.
  • Set expectations for what you’re wanting from your therapist in that moment (i.e., empathy, feedback, understanding, etc.)
  • Ask your therapist for resource recommendations for use outside of your sessions.
  • Let your therapist know how you would feel best supported.

Therapy isn’t only for the rich or the white. It can be healing for Black people who have to navigate implicit and explicit bias — on top of the media saturation of Black death, often at the hands of those whose job it is to protect us — to finally open up about experiences of discrimination, oppression, and systemic racism. For therapy to work, it will take Black people trusting mental health professionals, and for those professionals to put in the work to create a safe environment that truly fosters growth.

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