As the conversation of healing and going to therapy grows, so does the need for diversity or representation. Many people of color express concerns about having a therapist that does not understand them or their background.
Milka Lara-Rincon, a licensed marriage and family therapist, stated that her clients have shared this experience with her. This can turn a healing experience into a draining one.
“Sometimes when they work with a therapist that doesn’t share their background or their identities they can spend a lot of time in therapy kind of explaining their experience or kind of educating the provider,” said Lara-Rincon. “That can be an emotionally taxing thing to do especially when you’re in a vulnerable space like therapy.”
A lot of people did not grow up hearing about therapy or publicly disclosing their feelings to someone. So, having this type of experience can deter people from seeking mental health help at all. For Denise Silva Escobar, an associate marriage and family therapist, this was the case.
“I didn’t grow up with the idea of talking to others about your struggles. I didn’t know that could be a thing. That that was actually a thing people do when they are struggling, I didn’t even know that was an option,” said Silva Escobar.
It wasn’t until college that she reached out to start therapy. She recalled being given a white male therapist and how uncomfortable she felt during it. After that, it took her years to go back into therapy.
When someone has a therapist that looks like them or has an accurate and up-to-date understanding of their culture and background it creates a safe space. A space where they can feel free to be open without judgment.
When Arayah Williams was 14 she lost her father and over the next few years while dealing with the grief she also felt there was something more happening with her. So wanted to go to therapy then but it was not something her family participated in at the time. Once she turned 18 she decided to start therapy.
She described how helpful it was having a Black woman as her therapist and how she managed to help her feel comfortable.
“The part that made me feel comfortable was because she was a Black woman,” said Williams. “You can’t understand the experience of being a Black woman without being one. You have to live through it, it’s not something that you can just know.”
Williams said the therapist was like an auntie who told her exactly what she needed to hear and was understanding of what she was going through. The therapist then referred her to a psychiatrist and that is when she was diagnosed with Bipolar type 2 disorder.
Her therapist was able to help her talk things through and different actions to take for her to help maintain her emotions. Because of this, she wishes that therapy was not as stigmatized within the Black community.
“I think because therapy is so stigmatized in the Black community, therapists like her are really needed. They’re essential for us to do better,” said Williams.
Williams feels that therapy is important because everyone needs a place to speak without feeling judged. Because of the systematic differences affecting Black people, she specifically wants them to be able to feel more comfortable with going to therapy.
“I think everyone should do it (go to therapy), us especially because we’re behind everybody. We don’t have those stepping stones that Caucasians have. We have to be mentally okay so we can do what we have to do to better ourselves,” said Williams.
Since Williams started her journey with therapy her family has now become more open to the idea as well.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) people of color have been turning to therapy more in recent years due to discrimination and being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The APA reported that in 2020 an increase in people of color (44%) named discrimination as a stressor compared to 2019 (38%).
As mentioned, this is why people of color explain the need to be very cautious when picking a therapist. Dana Carrillo explained that after having two bad experiences with therapy she added several filters when looking for a new therapist.
“You’re gonna want someone who gets you. So for me, I asked for several different filters. I wanted someone who was open-minded and who was an ally to the LGBTQ+ community,” said Carrillo as she explained what she wanted in a therapist. “I wanted someone who was of a cultural background who also was a person of color hopefully and someone who understood that I also had a religious background that could either respect it or had a religious background as well.
This resulted in her having a therapist who lives on the East Coast and Carrillo said it’s worth it because of how much her therapist brings to the sessions regarding education and cultural understanding.
Carrillo advises any other person of color looking to start therapy to feel comfortable being picky when choosing the right therapist for them.
“Definitely go into it remembering that this is just as much a business deal as it is a personal experience. You’re paying for this experience so feel free to be picky, feel free to speak up, definitely ask as many questions as you want, and don’t feel the need to trust the person right off the bat,” said Carrillo.
Silva Escobar explained that sometimes someone who is not a person of color may not have the experience or background information needed to understand how race and ethnicity affect someone leaving the patient to explain things that are inherent to them.
“Predominantly someone who isn’t a person of color might not have the lens, might not have the understanding, might not have the wisdom of their life experiences to know how race, how ethnicity and how all of these paradigms affect a person,” said Silva Escobar.
Silva Escobar said it’s important as a therapist to be able to capture the magic of someone’s culture and validate it.
“I’m really thankful that I grew up in my cultura, my culture, because it gives me an understanding of racism, experiencing all kinds of different things throughout my life and my family,” said Silva Escobar describing how her culture helps her as a therapist. “I have the lens for it, I can capture it, I can call it. That sounds like internalized racism, I can call it, that sounds like you’re being stereotyped.”
In 2020 the APA Chief Diversity Officer, Maysa Akbar, stated in an APA article on how to treat people of color that the workforce was 84% White, meaning that people were most likely to have a white therapist.
The article presented three ways for psychologists to ensure they are providing treatment for people of color. They suggested that psychologists educate themselves on cultural and racial issues, reflect where they stand in terms of “racial and sociocultural hierarchy”, and consider if their practice provides equitable access for patients.
Lara-Rincon also spoke to the need for therapists to continue to educate themselves and be culturally sensitive.
“For providers, it’s really about being willing to work on where they’re lacking. Like learning what their blind spots are, educating themselves around issues pertaining to different communities and identities,” said Lara-Rincon.
She explained that everyone is going to have a different experience so continuing to learn is very important rather it’s reading a book or listening to a podcast that can give you insight into another person’s perspective and experience.
As people of color are learning how to navigate through the mental health world as patients and as therapists both Silva Escobar and Williams explained how important therapists of color are.
“The work that they’re doing is so amazing, to hold space for other people that can identify, that have gone through similar experiences,” said Silva Escobar to people of color that are becoming therapists. “I think it’s such a beautiful role that they’re playing in helping people that look like them feel more comfortable reaching out to get services.