Explaining your problems to the therapist can be scary enough. Adding the fact that they can’t fully grasp them can turn you away from much-needed therapy for good. As a person of color, having a therapist that can understand your background and the problems you face is essential for your mental health. 2020 especially shed light on the problems Black women face when it comes to finding the right therapist. Counselor and founder of WOC Therapy, Tamika Lewis spoke for The Lily, a publication of The Washington Post, about the need for more therapists of color.
In late 2019, Nandita Godbole decided to stop seeing her therapist; she’d reached a point where she felt it wasn’t as necessary. Godbole, a 50-year-old living in Atlanta, continued to engage in wellness practices, including meditation. But then the pandemic hit.
The new realities of isolation meant that once she decided to return to therapy, she had to face new hurdles. “I tried to get hold of my [former] therapist and she said, ‘It’s been more than six months, so we kind of have to start from scratch again,’ ” Godbole says.
Godbole had always felt her therapist’s perspective as a White person meant it was harder to be understood as a woman of color, she says. This was only exacerbated when therapy went totally online during the pandemic. Godbole, who’s Indian American, says it was difficult to explain familial expectations and roles to someone who didn’t understand the cultural nuances to begin with. “It was really hard to communicate with her,” she says. “I want to give her credit. She tried to understand, but the virtual aspect made [sessions] worse.”
Godbole also says she was concerned with confidentiality and privacy, which can be trickier when receiving therapy while at home. “In my case, I had trouble figuring out where I could sit and have a conversation,” Godbole says. “The only way I could do [therapy] was if I was sitting in my car in my driveway. At one point, I could see my family looking from the window. Just that eye contact made me conscious that I was in close proximity with the problem issue, so to speak.”
Godbole stopped therapy completely in April as a result of these challenges, she says.
Systemic racism and implicit bias can create hurdles at any time for women who seek help with their mental health, and before the pandemic, the disproportionate lack of access to mental health care for people of color in the United States was already well documented.
Women have increasingly taken to social media to talk about the difficulty of finding mental health professionals who reflect their own identities. According to a 2015 survey, 86 percent of psychologists in the U.S. workforce that year were White. This can, as in Godbole’s experience, create an even greater barrier to finding a psychologist with whom to connect.
As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently reported, the effects of the pandemic, coupled with these disparities, have created a “double jeopardy” for people of color. As the report reads: “Given the existing impediments to care for Blacks and Latinos due to social determinants of health, the COVID-19 pandemic will place those with behavioral health problems at even higher vulnerability.”
Women of color and advocates say the pandemic’s negative effects on mental health should be a sounding alarm to increase diversity among mental health professionals — or at least a reason to start this conversation.
Jasmine Howell, a 24-year-old from Cleveland, received a full scholarship to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. During her time as an undergrad, she learned of the mental health services her university offered and took advantage of them. After all, her tuition covered them, and these services were on campus, where she was living.
Overall, Howell’s experiences with therapy have been “a roller coaster,” she says. ” I would describe it as being inconsistent.”
Howell says that although she sought out resources at her school, most of the staff members were White women; she spoke with three of them in one year. Although she felt the school tried to match students with therapists based on their needs, it was an issue of the care that was available, she says.
“A lot of my issues, as far as not being socially comfortable at school or struggling with certain work, [dealt with] a racial lens they didn’t understand,” she says. “They would constantly opt out of counseling me and a new person would come in.”
In these sessions, Howell says, she felt she had to explain certain aspects of Black culture so they could better understand why she was seeking therapy — and that was before she got a chance to discuss her struggles.
By the time Howell’s time in college was almost over, she was matched with a Black male therapist. They were only able to work together for a few months, she says, but there was a marked difference in their sessions together.
Like Howell, her Black male therapist had been in a historically Black Greek organization, and Howell “didn’t have to spend time explaining” her social context to him, she says. The type of language he used was also more familiar to her, she says.
When Howell moved back to Cleveland in May, she started looking for someone located nearby. In June, she found a therapist who took her insurance via her low-income clinic, she says. She was able to find a Black female therapist with whom she’s been able to connect.
Howell advises other women of color seeking therapy to ask their local health centers, including nearby low-income clinics, about the mental health services they offer. Not all local clinics market all of their services, and patients may be surprised to find existing and low-cost options for mental health-care services. She also advises people to have at least three sessions with a therapist to get a better feel for their approach. Howell started by doing phone sessions with her therapist, and now meets with her therapist in person every three weeks.
Akua Boateng is a psychologist who studied at two HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). She says that while mental health-care professionals often take courses in cultural competence and sensitivity and go through diversity training, “that’s just a course; you probably learn the bare minimum about understanding diverse populations.” Being able to do her master’s at an HBCU allowed her to get a more nuanced and rich picture of mental health concerns in diverse communities, she says.
Boateng says she’s spoken to a number of patients who had negative experiences with therapists who were of a different or more privileged background. “Some people have come to me after a therapeutic experience where maybe a person that’s not of color did not fully understand their experience. They had to describe or explain the backstory or lived experiences they’ve had and then go through the process of being met with support,” she says.
As to the potential benefits of obtaining therapy with a woman of color, Boateng puts it like this: “There’s something that happens when you see someone that looks like you — there can be a sense of comfort.”
Counselor Tamika Lewis says she founded WOC Therapy, which helps match women of color with therapists, as a response “to the need of more therapists of color.” Like Boateng, Lewis says it can be exhausting to deal with the daily challenges that come with being a woman of color, and then having to explain these nuances to a therapist.
Especially in the pandemic, Lewis says, it’s important to maintain a sense of community. Community-based spaces that aren’t explicitly tied to therapy might help women of color improve their mental health, too. “Even if it’s a book club, anything that offers a community and support can be very healing,” she says.
Of course, White mental health-care workers can still serve clients of all races. Lewis says she hopes everyone can take steps to make sure clients of color are at ease. “I think it’s important to not be so steeped in theory but to be in practice,” she says. “If you’re a White therapist and have limited interactions with people of color, you may want to expand your own network.”
Boateng echoes a similar sentiment: It’s important, she says, for White therapists to be aware of their privilege and majority status in the field of mental health, and to take steps to get to know diverse communities better.
Boateng pointed out that in recent years, she’s seen more directories, foundations and organizations emerge that specifically target the needs of women and people of color. Here are several places to start.
The Loveland Foundation. Founded by activist Rachel Cargle, this organization focuses on helping Black women and girls have better and equitable access to therapy. The organization runs a therapy fund and works with partners to ensure that recipients can afford therapy sessions.
Therapy for Black Girls. Founded by therapist Joy Harden Bradford, this community offers a directory, podcast and blog that focuses on ensuring Black women and girls have access to mental health services.
Latinx Therapy. This directory offers a podcast, courses and information for professionals in the field of psychotherapy, plus a list of wellness resources.
National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network. This organization is dedicated to helping queer and transgender patients of color find therapy that is rooted in social justice, healing and care.
Therapy in Color. This directory contains a list of clinicians and counselors committed to addressing mental health in Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.
Psychology Today Directory. This allows you to filter psychologists by race and gender.
Therapists of Color. For therapists of color in the Bay Area, this group has monthly meetings and discusses best practices in therapy.
Many people of color have been looking for a therapist that can really understand their struggles. The need for therapists has been growing, especially during the pandemic. Overall, the sense of community is essential in overcoming the struggles we faced in 2020, and every therapist, Black or White, should make sure people of color feel at ease.