As a therapist who treats clients who struggle with depression, anxiety, and trauma related to childhood and racial issues, I see firsthand how my Black and brown clients struggle with issues related to racial trauma. This often comes out in forms such as:
- rage and aggression
- constant depressed moods
- daily feelings of hopelessness
- loss of interest in meaningful and pleasurable activities
- inability to concentrate
- issues around eating and sleep
It’s more common than not for the constant re-exposure to violence, death, and assault against the Black body to cause issues like depression, mood dysregulation, and racial anxiety. Black people’s mental health matters just as much as their lives do.
When examining racial trauma responses, we might notice that these responses are similar to those observed in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, they differ because race-based trauma is an ongoing experience. Emotional and bodily symptoms can be triggered not only by direct acts of racism but also through microaggressions and white supremacy culture.
Symptoms of racial trauma can manifest as chronic stress and somatic responses such as:
- muscle aches
- stomach pain
- chest tightness
- recurring memories of stressful racial events
- increased hypervigilance related to one’s identity
- dissociation (which is a disconnection between thoughts, memories, feelings, and identity)
The emotional toll of racial trauma can be damaging to one’s health if left untreated. It can be poisonous to the well-being of the Black body. That’s why finding safe places, cultivating community, and practicing self-care are vital to the restoration and preservation of the Black community, its ancestry, and the generations to come. It’s also why going to therapy and seeking spaces for professional insight and strategies are on the rise for Black folks.
The problem, however, is that 84 percent of the psychology workforce is white and 4 percent is Black. This means finding a Black therapist can be difficult as a sheer numbers game.
When you’re stuck with few or no options, it can be daunting trying to explain your racial experiences to a white/non-Black therapist in fear of them committing the same acts of racial violence and microaggressions in the therapy room.
It is possible to find a culturally competent therapist as long as they’re doing the work of practicing anti-racism and dismantling systems of oppression (especially within the mental health field) and are actively committed to confronting their implicit biases through training and educational materials.
This information might not be on display for easy filtering, but during a consultation, you can ask your therapist questions to gauge whether they would be a healthy fit.
Some questions to ask would be:
- What is your experience in treating Black clients?
- What are your views on racism?
- What do you know about anti-racism, and how do you commit to this practice?
- What is your approach to treating issues such as racial trauma?
- Can you tell me about the resources you utilize to learn about issues related to racism and implicit biases?
When asking these questions, we must not forget that our lived experiences are not specific to our racial identity. This is where intersectionality comes in.
“Intersectionality” is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw that highlights how being part of multiple oppressed groups can also impact our mental health. This looks like being Black and female, being Black and trans, being Black and disabled, or being Black, trans, and disabled. The point is to understand how the intersections of our lives can bring forth traumatic experiences.
For example, for some Black folks, a racially aware therapist may not be enough. They may need one who also understands oppression against the disabled and LGBTQ+ communities. Knowing how your identities intersect is equally important when assessing competency from a therapist and how they’ll be able to treat what impacts you daily.
Questions about intersectionality to ask a therapist:
- What is your experience in treating members of the LGBTQ+ community?
- What is your experience in treating Black women? Or individuals who are non-binary?
- What is your experience in treating clients who are disabled?
- How do you practice cultural competency in your practice?
- What approach do you take when treating issues around race and identity?
When a therapist responds that they don’t know what anti-racism is, that they learn and gather resources from only white professionals, or that they’ve never treated a client who shares your identity, that could be a sign that this therapist won’t be a good fit for you. If their response is a dance around your questions or if they gaslight you into thinking that those experiences don’t matter as long as you’re committed to healing yourself, they definitely won’t be a good fit for you.
A therapist who makes you feel heard, understood, and validated is a great sign that there will be an opportunity for you both to build a great rapport. Engaging in active listening and asking reflective questions to more deeply understand you and your needs are also great qualities of a therapist who is not only culturally competent but also affirming and good at their practice.
Remember that if at any point you start to feel like the relationship is not what you thought it was and it doesn’t feel safe, it’s OK to challenge your therapist and express the things you don’t like along with your disappointments. You also have permission to decline services or even end therapy at any time, even after you’ve signed up, if you realize there’s no therapeutic alliance and working with this person won’t be as helpful as you thought.
Though we may not be able to dismantle the systems at large that perpetuate the symptoms of racial trauma, we have the power to build our own safe havens and seek places of refuge.
Going to therapy is not the only avenue Black people are seeking. There has also been a rise in wellness hubs curated by Black people — such as Black Girl in Om, Ethel’s Club, Black Girls Breathing, The Nap Ministry, and BEAM — as ways to bring healing back to our communities. However, Therapy for Black Girls and Black Female Therapists are paving the way for creating access to Black folks looking for Black providers.
As we continue to champion the reminder that Black Lives Matter, let’s also continue to defend and promote that Black Mental Health matters too. It always has and always will.