By Elvira Swartch Lorenzo •
Originally published on Afroféminas •
When I made the decision to seek therapy, I initially had two opposite reactions. The first was an initial enthusiasm to take care of myself and hopefully become a better person. That feeling was quickly replaced by panic: I knew immediately that I would feel more comfortable working with a black therapist, and I also knew that where I lived would make it difficult, if not impossible.
The relationship between mental health and the Black community is slowly evolving, but while we often speak of historical and understandably skeptical perceptions of therapy, we don’t speak enough about the current obstacles we face when trying to get help. As a Black woman, seeking therapy means seeking a professional who is equipped with the best understanding of how our identities influence our experiences. The way we navigate the world is tainted by both racism and sexism, and that has such a major effect on our mental health that it makes it almost impossible to avoid such topics during therapy. Our unique experiences must be appropriately contextualized and factored into our care.
Health professionals, especially those who treat minorities, should keep in mind that treatment is not one-size-fits-all. What works for white patients may not work for Black patients, so it is important to get the most cultural understanding and training to provide the best possible treatment.
Part of that understanding includes having a working understanding of our dealings with the negative stereotypes that impact us on a daily basis. Without that, we run the risk of linking up with a professional who not only lacks cultural competence, but is also potentially working under those implicit biases. For example, the stereotype of the “angry Black woman,” one that slanders Black women as aggressive, hostile, and short-tempered, is so pervasive that it can greatly affect how we receive, or are sometimes denied, treatment of mental health. A report published in the journal Social Work in Public Health notes that when mental health professionals fail to familiarize themselves with the stereotype, they often miscite certain symptoms, such as mood swings, irritability, or simply genuine responses to oppression, as evidence of that stereotype.
Another generalization that works in tandem with “Angry Black Woman” is the “Strong Black Woman,” which can also lead to misjudgment of our mental health needs. Health professionals, on numerous occasions, do not believe how much Black women are suffering, which affects physical and mental health. Often when the reasons why they need their services are discussed, we are seen as “strong” women who, instead of needing to be comforted and helped, are seen as models of strength. This, in turn, prevents us from seeking treatment and we are back with everything inside.
This does little to alleviate the complex stigma surrounding mental health care in the Black community, which is based on factors such as a general lack of access to treatment and inherent mistrust in a medical community with a dark history of experimentation with Black bodies in many places in Africa and America. If we can overcome those barriers, we still have to navigate an overwhelmingly white selection of professionals. As we are faced with such a wide and glaring disparity, how can Black women expect to receive the proper care we need?
But for those who simply cannot access a Black professional, how can mental health professionals provide the best care for Black patients?
It is important that Black women feel comfortable and understood. When it comes to Black women, it is crucial to take the time to get to know us and learn about our history. If you are often struggling with feeling uncomfortable talking about racism and Black trauma, then it is recommended that you be referred to another professional because it is going to come up. Research and study their culture to understand resistance to why they often don’t seek treatment.
Also, take stock of existing stereotypes that hamper our ability to seek professional care and actively work to eliminate them from your practice. “Support Black women so they don’t have to be superheroes,” Douglas said. Use the idea of ’It’s okay to not be okay’ to make us feel more comfortable seeking help for our emotional well-being.
Elvira Swartch Lorenzo is a regular contributing writer for Afroféminas, and a daughter of Afro-Colombian migrants.