It had been a few years since I’d seen a therapist. And as I sat in my living room, about to meet my new (virtual) therapist, I was surprised to find that I was nervous.
The fear quickly subsided, though, as soon as her face appeared on the screen: a face that looked like mine.
Brown skin, natural hair, and a smile that both cheered and reassured me. Having a black therapist was something I’d insisted on this time around, and from the moment I saw her, I knew it was a decision I wouldn’t regret.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. By the time I began seeing her, I was so depressed and anxious that I rarely left the house.
You see, by day, I was René from Black Girl, Lost Keys — a blog that seeks to educate and motivate black women with ADHD. But behind closed doors, I’m René, the woman who’s living with a variety of mental health issues — anxiety and dysthymia among them — which a divorce, career change, and newly acquired PTSD surely weren’t helping with.
Mental health awareness is my whole life, professionally and personally. So how was it that I’d been in a 3-year rut, not having seen a therapist despite being such a vocal advocate for it?
I didn’t have an answer to that at first, but as I began making incredible progress with my new therapist, it became much clearer to me. It was the missing ingredient, now present in this new relationship: cultural competence.
So why was this such an important piece to my recent success in therapy? Before the All Therapists Matter crew comes to hunt me down, I want to share with you why having a black therapist has made all the difference.
1. The trust we have is essential
Like it or not, the medical community has some glaring issues with race. Many black people have difficulty trusting the mental health care system, as it’s been weaponized prejudice against us routinely.
Black people, for instance, are twice as likely to be hospitalized for care in comparison to white people, and are often misdiagnosed, leading to dangerous outcomes for them and their loved ones. As in the case of black women dying in childbirth, many of these problems stem from the fact that clinicians aren’t listening to black people.
Their prejudices lead them to draw conclusions that can have severe consequences on our health. This mistrust leads to a vulnerable population that needs these services but distrusts the people who provide the services.
Having a provider, though, who deeply understands those fears allows us to have a foundation of trust that makes a significant difference.
2. I’m not made to feel as though I’m fighting stereotypes
One of the things we learn as people of color is that there are prejudices built up against us. This can leave us in fear of perpetuating a stereotype, leading to racist judgments about ourselves.
Am I too depressed to clean my home? Have my symptoms made me somewhat promiscuous? Do I lack good financial management?
We’re taught to show ourselves as model minorities who don’t fit into the “dirty, lazy, promiscuous, poor” stereotypes that are foisted on minorities. Admitting those things to a white therapist can feel like reinforcing the worst stereotypes about race.
Yet often, the symptoms of mental illness can cause people to put us in those categories as well. It’s difficult to open up to someone when you feel they may judge your whole race based on this one experience with you.
But knowing that my therapist faces the same judgments, I’m not left wondering how I’m coming across in session.
3. What’s understood doesn’t have to be explained
Being black affects every single experience I have on this earth and will do so until the day I die. In order to effectively treat me, you have to understand what life is like for a black woman.
Not every facet of that experience can be articulated. It’s like trying to translate a language — some things can’t be put into words that outsiders can understand. With previous therapists, I found myself often having to be a guide for my therapist to the world of black womanhood.
For instance, the bonds of family, especially parents are very tight in my culture. This can become problematic when you’re attempting to set boundaries with your loved ones. A previous therapist couldn’t wrap her mind around why I couldn’t lay out the boundaries that she was suggesting.
I painstakingly went over the reasons why this was problematic, and it took over 45 minutes to get her to understand. This takes valuable time away from my session and creates a new conversation that might mean we never come back to my issue.
With my black therapist, I was able to say, “You know how it is with black moms,” and she just nodded and we kept the conversation flowing. When you’re able to talk about your issue instead of stopping to translate your culture, it allows you to get to the root of the issue once and for all.
4. The freedom to be myself
When I’m in the room with my therapist, I know that I can be my full self. I’m black, I’m a woman, and I have several mental health conditions I’m juggling. With my therapist, I can be all of these things at once.
Once when I was in a session, my old therapist indicated that she thought some of my problems stemmed from growing up in poverty. I did NOT grow up in poverty. But because I am black, she went ahead and made that assumption. I never trusted her again after that.
With a black therapist, I don’t have to hide or downplay any part of my identity within those walls. When I can be free like that, some of the healing comes naturally as a result of feeling safe in my own skin. Some of it comes from not being othered for at least an hour a week.
Now, I can finally let my hair down for that hour we spend together, and get the tools I need to attack the week ahead.
There were so many signs that I was in the right place, but I think the one that stuck out to me most was one day, when I complimented my therapist on her head wrap. She pointed out that it was wrapped because she was finishing getting her hair braided.
It might sound simple, but it felt like being with a sister or a trusted friend. The familiarity of that was so much different than what I usually felt with therapists.
Being able to sit down with a black woman has revolutionized my mental health care. I just wish I hadn’t waited so long to find a therapist who can see life from my perspective.
René Brooks has been a typical person living with ADHD for as long as she can remember. She loses keys, books, essays, her homework, and her glasses. She started her blog, Black Girl, Lost Keys, to share her experiences as someone living with ADHD and depression.