Therapist for Black Lives #blacklivesmatter

Originally published on cherylleong.com, July 8th 2016

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

“Black Lives Matter” began as a hashtag on Twitter in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. As a therapist, I started asking myself questions about how the field of psychotherapy can support the Black community as it fights for change. While psychotherapists discuss issues of race-based trauma and resilience building, we may be missing an important piece. The bigger question is: How has the field played a role in marginalizing specific communities of color and, more specifically, the Black community?

There was a recent article by KQED entitled Mental Health Study: Sorry, I’m Not Accepting New (Black or Poor) Patients, which brought to light some alarming issues.

“Previous research has shown that psychotherapists have a preference to treat clients they perceive to be verbal, intelligent, and “psychologically minded,” in other words, people who are like them. Another study found that psychiatrists perceive black patients as “less articulate, competent, [and] introspective” compared to white patients.”

The article was beyond painful to read as a therapist who serves Black clients and identifies as a queer POC immigrant. I have had to genuinely reflect on our therapist profession as a whole and consider some painful realities. Being silent could mean having complicity in the broader system that violently and fatally targets Black individuals.

So this amplifies the question: How do we as therapists in the SF Bay Area support #BlackLivesMatter? I think the issue picks at the scabs of a terrible history. A history that few mental health clinicians consider. Over the last century, the field has systematically perpetuated and discriminated against the Black community. (Read here) . From diagnosis to treatment, racial biases have haunted the area. For example, once upon a time, psychology as an institution believed that race was a determinant of intelligence level. Black individuals have been over-diagnosed and misdiagnosed because they were viewed from the dominant Euro-American perspective (Read Here). Rather than examining the intercultural relationship between a Euro-American centric mental health system and Black communities, the field has a history of being ethnocentric in viewing other cultures instead. It has also ignored the confounding variable of dominant cultural privilege (or White privilege) when observing clients of color. All this has systematically contributed to marginalizing Black communities.

It is more challenging to consider how race and class play a role in how a person gets access to mental health treatment. How do we even begin to address this gap in mental health resources?

Considering our history as a field today, are we continuing to look at mental health from a racially-biased standpoint? YES. We are far from racism-free. Unless we continually have more honest self-reflection as individuals and as an entire field of mental health practitioners, we will be far from a “post-racism” mental health system. The mental health system perpetuates racism towards the Black community, and our ongoing denial does more harm than good. It might even be continuous, systematic, racial aggression, which we unconsciously participate in. How do we begin considering racism’s effect on how we assess, diagnose, and treat? There may not be immediate answers, but we have got to keep exploring, self-reflecting, and continually bring these unconscious processes to light.

Several mental health boards have made a precise effort to put out statements in regards to #BlackLivesMatter. The AFTA has created a beautiful statement, and I wish to quote:

Why the Black Lives Matter Movement Should Matter to Members of AFTA and all Mental Health Professionals

We enter therapeutic relationships with preconceived, often subjective ideas of normal and abnormal, functional and dysfunctional, rooted in our racial, cultural and social contexts. The experience of racial privilege can lead to a universal assumption that all people and races have similar experiences and opportunities. Diagnostic assessments and research practices are far from immune to these influences and assumptions.

Assumptions based in White privilege are present in psychotherapy regardless of the setting or the social status of the participants; from private practices to agencies serving clients of lower socio-economic class. Therapy is not conducted in a vacuum. In addition to the personal history and present situation of each family and individual, therapy is influenced by the intersecting, multidimensional contexts that include the social systems and cultural identities of privilege, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, education, sexual orientation and gender identity addressed by Black Lives Matter as it affirms the lives of Black people and challenges the dehumanization of the Black community.”

I do not have all the answers, but I know that it is vital to be a Queer Asian clinician who stands in solidarity with the Black community, my Black clients, and my Black peers in the field. I want to be an ally, and I know I need to do so with humility and be open to change in myself and my work.

#THERAPISTSFORBLACKLIVES #mentalhealth

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Cheryl Leong

Author of the forthcoming book “Leading With Consciousness: Cultivating Conscious Organizational Culture.” I am a leadership coach & psychotherapist.