If you’re not comfortable affirming my race and gender, you’re not able to provide the support I need.
I think folks believe I’m joking when I say it took seeing six or seven mental health professionals before I found one who was a good fit.
Don’t even get me started on my marriage therapist.
I wouldn’t say the others were bad counselors — at least not all of them. What I can say is that they were a bad fit for me as a Black woman.
To support me as a client, a counselor has to understand how being a Black person in white spaces has impacted the way I see the world. If you’re not comfortable affirming how my race and gender shape my worldview, you’re not able to provide the support I need.
Instead of connecting with a mental health professional who validated me, I regularly left sessions feeling gaslit and delusional.
If I was lucky enough to find someone who shared my perspectives, I had to deal with other factors of inaccessibility like distance or financial limitations.
Like other areas of medicine, mental health treatment and access have been shaped by racism and prejudice.
Research has documented disproportionate rates of mental illness and underrepresentation for those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), along with challenges of uniformity in diagnostics.
The past 10 years of seeking therapy have given me plenty of frustrations, but they’ve also provided clarity on what I need in a mental health professional.
What follows are a few reflections on the difficult but rewarding process of finding a good therapist as a person of color.
The early stages of locating mental health assistance can be overwhelming. I’ve found that many individuals are unsure of what to look for in a mental health professional.
Here are a few things to consider:
I suggest looking for the same qualities in a mental health professional that you’d look for in a friend.
Are they a good listener? Do they show empathy? Do they get the language you use? It may seem obvious, but not all therapists will do these things.
Make a list
The best way to develop your list of nonnegotiables is to consider what you’re seeking support for.
Are you struggling to process your race or gender? Are your experiences as an individual with a disability making you feel like no one understands what you’re going through?
Use these struggles as a guiding light to locate providers who understand, or at least affirm, your experiences.
After you make your list of needs, ask prospective providers how much experience they have with clients whose needs are similar to yours.
More experience means it’ll be less work for you to educate them about your worldview. That’s the last thing anyone needs when seeking support.
Once I knew my must-haves, I started researching the professionals who were available to me, both in person and online. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Use your network
During college, the process of finding a mental health professional was easy. My university offered students six free mental health sessions through the counseling department.
As I got older, my life got more complicated with marriage, work, and parenting. I was lucky enough to have access to Military OneSource, a resource that connects military families with a wide range of support, including mental health services.
An individual without access to resources like these has the burden of finding the right care for themselves. That research process varies greatly depending on your insurance and life context.
Sometimes the best place to start is with word of mouth. Members of your community may be able to refer you to competent, empathetic therapists who can serve your specific needs.
What worked for others
I spoke to two fellow BIPOC about their journey finding the right therapist. They shared their process and what worked for them.
As an African American man, Keenan White knew that he needed a professional who would understand the stressors of growing up Black.
“My nonnegotiables were Black, professional, and experienced, as well as LGBT-friendly: an ally or part of the community,” he says.
He began his search on Google. He used keywords about race and orientation, and even surnames, to locate a counselor who fit.
Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander, a Pacific Islander who’s also a community activist, knew she needed someone who was queer-friendly and affirming, understood oppressive systems, and could accommodate her busy schedule.
“I put together a spreadsheet using an online directory provided by my insurance company. I researched therapists’ backgrounds and clinics they worked in, and, honestly, it was important to me to receive services from a queer-friendly and welcoming clinic,” she says.
Trial and error
Just as I had to try out several counselors before finding the right person for me, other people of color often see multiple counselors before settling on a quality fit.
For White, relatability is key.
“I like that my counselor very easily relates to my experiences. He’s not afraid to show the ugly sides of himself to put me at ease. I like that he’s a male, because a male mentor is something I’ve never really had,” he says.
Before his 2-year relationship with his current counselor, White tried another counselor of color who wasn’t a good fit. He had to be willing to move on and find someone else to get the care he needed.
Lonoaea-Alexander initially had a white male therapist. They were compatible, but after he took a leave of absence during the COVID-19 outbreak, she had to start over. She eventually found a woman of color specializing in relationship and family counseling. They were ultimately a better fit.
In connecting with her new provider, Lonoaea-Alexander learned that she needed a therapist who understood living in Hawaii.
“They understand more deeply what it’s like to live in a multiethnic and multigenerational home like mine and how my multitudes of identities play into my personal and professional life,” she says.
The number of support resources has significantly changed since I was a nervous 20 year old hoping to make sense of the world. People of color seeking support can use the resources below to get started.
Consider payment options and connecting with insurance companies as part of your research process when looking for a mental health professional.
Cost is probably the most significant barrier to care for people of color.
BIPOC individuals are substantially more likely to have limited access to disposable income. And uncertainty around finances can make therapy just another stressor in your life.
For those who don’t have insurance or find that their insurance doesn’t cover the full cost of services, the organizations below may be able to help with funding, so you can receive affordable care.
People of color who are on a quest for mental health services often experience an additional level of stigma around mental health issues from their own communities.
There were many times when loved ones said to me, “Oh no, what’s wrong with you?!” or “The only person that you need to talk to is God, girl.”
In particularly frustrating conversations, I’d get a mix of both responses.
My family believes that therapy is only for dire situations. I internalized this belief, which hurt me in the long run. My mental health concerns wouldn’t have become as urgent as they did if I’d sought care earlier in life.
My childhood was filled with bullying, and my adulthood came with several instances of reproductive trauma. As if those weren’t enough, racial microaggressions and a few painful relationships made it hard to develop a steady sense of self.
It’s especially important that BIPOC are open about their mental health experiences. Destigmatizing mental health issues by sharing resources, tips, and experiences has the potential to impact entire communities. It’s a way to pay it forward and set an example that it’s alright to get help.
“I talk to friends and family about it. I’m not ashamed of actively treating my mental health issues, but I know many people have entrenched stigma around getting help,” says Lonoaea-Alexander.
She believes in the importance of seeking care despite negative responses from loved ones.
“Seeking mental health help is scary, but it’s scarier to pretend I don’t want or need help sometimes,” she says.
These organizations are changing the landscape of how communities of color talk about and relate to mental health. And there are many more out there.
Open conversations about mental health are a form of advocacy. Willingness to be transparent about the process of seeking mental healthcare allows others to visualize the journey in front of them and reduce stigma.
This makes the process easier for the next generation than it was for us.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women’s voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. She’s also the founder of the #FreeBlackmotherhood movement.