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Explaining Racial Trauma To A White Therapist Isn’t Always Easy, Here’s Why Seeing A Therapist Of Color Might Be Better

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness month, a time of year the U.S. Government designated to “bring awareness to the unique struggles that underrepresented groups face in regard to mental illness in the United States”. And with good reason.

Chilling statistics tell us that while 41.5% of children aged 12-17 received care for a major depressive episode, the percentage of minority children that received treatment is much lower, with 35.1% of black children and only 32.7% of Latino kids receiving care. The reasons behind this are varied. Not only are minorities more likely to be misdiagnosed and less likely to receive appropriate care due to clinician bias, but according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, minorities are also “less likely to use community mental health services, more likely to use emergency departments, and more likely to receive lower quality care”, due to a variety of socioeconomic factors. We know that mental illness is a cultural issue that permeates every aspect of society, so the problem, then, lies in awareness, diagnosis, and treatment. 

The idea of consulting a therapist for professional help seems like overkill, a little foreign, and definitely a little scary. We’ve all head the common refrain: “Isn’t therapy for crazy people?”. Not at all. Therapy is simply a way of practicing self-care and should have no greater stigma surrounding it than going to the doctor for a check-up. In 2017, a study showed that 18.9% of adults in the U.S. had a mental illness. That’s 46.6 million people! Statistics like this simply prove how much therapy could benefit the population. 

Luckily, we live in a time where millennials are no longer as afraid of talking about their struggles with mental health or afraid of getting outside help to deal with them. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, five times as many college students went to therapy in 2017 as compared to the years between 2011 and 2016. According to Peter Economou, a professor of Applied Psychology at Rutgers: “treatment has become de-stigmatized so people are more open to it”. But, we still have a long way to go. 

The Latino community, like many marginalized communities, is notoriously conservative when it comes to views on mental illness. As Twitter user @itsk80prince put it so perfectly: “talking about mental health in Latino families be like: “eres un emo?”. Many Latino families believe that problems should be discussed with a priest or maybe with your girlfriends during a round of chisme.

Before you start your search for a therapist, keep the following points in mind:

1. Do your research about their ethnic background and background in treating certain demographics.

There’s no shame in wanting a therapist who either looks like you or might come from a similar upbringing as you do. Often times, these are the therapists who can make us feel the most understood, related to and comforted. Having to explain racial trauma to a therapist who might not be able to relate or validate your feelings will undoubtedly bring you way more frustration in the end. “I’m a Latina who identifies as queer and started to see a white female therapist after I found myself going through a lot of depression while trying to get a job at a new company,” one woman explained to FIERCE in an interview. “All was well at first but after a while, I realized that talking about the frustrations I was experiencing were not being registered her accepted by her. For example, speaking to her about the frustrations of being interviewed by white men over and over again was okay but speaking about the racist microaggressions I would experience under my white female boss was always met with questions about why I thought my boss’s behavior was racist even at all. Ultimately I left her and started seeing a black female therapist who gets my situation so much more and I feel so much more validated.” 

2. Know the difference between a Counselor vs. a Therapist vs. a Psychologist

Counselors don’t require an advanced degree and, in fact, the term “counselor” kind of works as an umbrella term for therapists, social workers, and psychologists. Therapists, on the other hand, usually need a minimum of a Master’s degree in Psychology, Social Work, or Marriage and Family Therapy in order to call themselves a therapist. Psychologists are required to hold at least a Masters degree in psychology, with many opting for a doctorate.

3. Okay, so you want the Ph.D. Will you be needing a psychologist or psychiatrist? 

Newbies to therapy might not be aware of the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, so it’s good to keep in mind the difference before starting your search. While a psychologist assesses, analyzes and observes your behavior in order to alleviate mental stress, a psychiatrist does all of the above and is also a licensed physician, meaning they can also prescribe medication, such as antidepressants. 

If you’re really struggling with depression, anxiety and/or psychosis and your mood makes it hard for you to function in day-to-day life, then your problems may be caused by a chemical imbalance. Medication might give you the extra help you need to get your mood back on track.

4. Do you want this time to be solo?

It may not come as a shock to you to know that many people consider relationships to be one of the most stressful aspects of life. Consider couples or family therapy as an option if you feel like you need help mediating inter-relational problems, or even if you’d just like an outside opinion on your relationships. Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) specialize in familial interactions and work on improving communication between family members. 

5. Identity matters.

Don’t feel guilty about preferring a therapist who understands first-hand the struggle that you go through on a daily basis. That means that if you prefer a therapist who identifies the same way as you do (gender, sexual orientation, race and/or ethnicity), it is completely within your rights to pick that therapist. If you’re more comfortable with therapist who specializes in LGBTQ+ issues or identifies as Latino, then that’s completely your choice.  

6. Utilize all of your resources. 

Remember, there have been so many people that have come before you that have been in your shoes. Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals from open-minded friends and family members. Also, know that there are tons of resources available to you online. The internet is chock-full of lists, databases, directories, and networks, all created with the express purpose of providing mental health care to Latino and marginalized communities. Databases like this can point you in the right director. Or even ask your healthcare provider to connect you with therapists who identify the same way as you do.

7. Take your therapist for a test drive. 

If you’re worried about committing to a therapist straight of the bat, ask for a trial session first so you know if you have chemistry (or have the possibility of building a rapport) with your mental healthcare provider. Sometimes, everything about your potential therapist can look great on paper, but once you meet in person, the connection just isn’t there. 

Once you arrive, ask yourself a few questions: Do you like the environment? Does this person feel easy to talk to? Do you feel comfortable around this person? Can you imagine revealing some of your most painful feelings to this person? All of these questions can help bring clarity to what you’re feeling.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

It can be a little daunting the first time you step into a therapist’s office, especially when you expect your therapist to be the one asking you all of the thought-provoking questions. But, remember: this is your health, and you get to call the shots. Make sure you ask questions–what is the therapist’s approach? Psychotherapy? Cognitive behavioral therapy? Does your therapist use faith-based methods to supplement her practice? No question is too trivial, silly, or small to ask your potential therapist.

9. Make sure your therapist is licensed.

Last but not least, make sure your therapist is licensed by the state you live in. Becoming a licensed therapist is a strenuous process that involves a lot of schooling, clinical hours, and exams. So, although that man on the corner of the sidewalk giving out advice may have some interesting stuff to say, he’s probably not the best option for helping you get to your best self.

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