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Therapist for Black Lives #blacklivesmatter

July 8, 2016

“Black Lives Matter” began as a hashtag on Twitter in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. As a therapist, I began asking myself questions about how the field of psychotherapy can play a role in supporting 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 very disturbing 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.”

As a therapist who serves Black clients and identifies as a queer POC immigrant, the article was beyond painful to read. I have had to genuinely reflect on our therapist profession as a whole and consider some excruciating realities. Being silent could mean having complicity in a wider 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 question 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 field. For example, once upon a time the Euro-American psychological field believed that race determined level of intelligence. Black individuals have been over-diagnosed and misdiagnosed because they were viewed from the dominant Euro-American perspective (Read Here). Rather than examining the inter-cultural relationship between a Euro-American centric mental health system and Black communities, the field has instead a history of being ethnocentric in viewing other cultures. 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.

What is more challenging to consider is how race and class play a role in terms of 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. My sense is that 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 continues to perpetuate racism towards the Black community and our ongoing denial does more harm than good. It might even be ongoing, 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 made a beautiful statement and I wish to quote:

Why the Black Lives Matter Movement Should Matter to Members of AFTA and to 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 so 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 in my work.