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The Power of Shared Identity When Looking for a Therapist

February 10, 2023

Amy Mauro

“It took me years to find a therapist who validated my experiences as a Black woman. Seeing a Black therapist empowered me to walk on a path of wellness and healing.”

In her twenties, traversing through the early stages of her career as an artist, Jackie realized that she lacked the emotional support system that her non-Black peers were receiving. 

Amidst the stress of systematic racism and frequent microaggressions, Jackie is also prone to experiencing anxiety and depression. She hoped to find a therapist who could understand her lived experiences as a Black woman facing mental health challenges, and inspire her path to wellness. 

In the early stages of her therapy journey, Jackie met with several non-Black therapists. She felt an underlying sense of discomfort from her White therapists, whenever she brought up her experiences with racism and discrimination.

She felt like she had to explain her perception of experienced racism to therapists who could empathize but not relate to her lived experiences. It became difficult for Jackie to bring her authentic self to therapy, when she felt like her race and identity were being avoided. 

This isn’t to say that non-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) therapists cannot provide effective therapy to Black clients, they can. However, it’s essential for therapists to be aware of their own world views, knowledge about diversity, and skilled in connecting people of all different cultural backgrounds.

Effective therapists will work to understand how systematic racism plays an integral role in the mental health of their clients, community, and society. 

Jackie now see’s a Black therapist. For the first time, she feels like she can show up as her authentic self.

Jackie and her therapist have an open and ethical dialogue about their lived experiences with racism and discrimination. He offers her strength-based solutions to meet life’s challenges, and helps Jackie forge new insights into her emotions and behaviors. 

While Jackie and her therapist don’t share parallel lives, the familiarity of their lived experiences allows Jackie to open up and feel heard.

Honoring Black History Month and Black Mental Health

Every February, the U.S. honors and celebrates the contributions and sacrifices of Black and African Americans who have helped shape the nation. 

We are taking the opportunity this February to understand and highlight Black and African American people’s lived experiences with mental health.

We understand that mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race or background. However, cultural background and identity are an integral part of access to supportive and effective mental health treatment.

What Being Black in America Means for Mental Health

Part of the shared cultural experience of being Black in America is nurtured through values, family and community connections, expression through music, spirituality, and the arts. 

Yet historical dehumanization, violence, and oppression against Black Americans continues to escalate into present day structural, institutional, and individual racism. Mass traumas from COVID-19, police brutality, and divisive political issues add to the suffering that Black Americans face. Living with exposure to systematic racism and bias can result in higher rates of psychological distress. 

  • Studies from the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health show that Black Americans are more likely than White Americans to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress. 

Studies from SAMHSA’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that:

  • 16% (4.8 million) of Black and African American people reported having a mental illness and 22.4% (1.1 million) of those reported a serious mental illness 
  • Serious mental illness increased among all ages of Black and African American people between 2008 and 2018

Additionally, financial stress and economic immobility which can stem from systemic oppression makes Black Americans more susceptible to experiencing mental health challenges. 

  • In 2021, 19.5 percent of Black Americans were living below the poverty line
  • Despite the apparent need for mental health treatment, only one in three Black adults living with mental health conditions receive treatment.

It can be difficult for Black people to locate a Black therapist. Given that Black therapists are disproportionately underrepresented in their field.

According to the American Psychological Association, less than 2 percent of the psychology workforce in the U.S. is Black. Still, many Americans are seeking support from a Black therapist.

Jackie’s Journey to Find the Right Therapist

Jackie’s story shows us how mental health challenges for Black and African Americans are shaped by historical, cultural, and structural factors. Jackie faced these challenges while searching for the right therapist.

The following story of Jackie’s journey to finding the right therapist is not a case example. It is a story from a real individual resulting from a candid conversation. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.

The Challenges of Finding a Supportive Therapist

Jackie’s search for a therapist began in New York.

One of her non-Black friends suggested that she try her therapist, Chris. 

Jackie quickly sensed the discomfort in the room, as she attempted to explain her daily encounters with racism and discrimination to her White male therapist. She found herself leading the sessions and not fully expressing her experiences and feelings for fear of making Chris uncomfortable. 

Jackie discovered that Chris was exchanging free therapy sessions for artwork with another client. This client was a white woman. Jackie had insurance at the time, but her copay was still very high. When Jackie asked Chris for the same exchange, he rejected her offer. The reality of the situation felt like a slap in the face, and left Jackie feeling even more othered. 

A turn of events brought Jackie and her husband to Switzerland. Determined to find a supportive therapist overseas, Jackie sat on many couches and attempted to open up about her life.

When Jackie would share incidents of racism and microaggressions to her White female therapists, her therapists attempted to defend themselves from making similar accusations. This had the effect of ignoring Jackie’s lived experiences, and leaving her broken inside. 

Even more frustrating was her therapist’s attempts to empathize with Jackie, without offering her a solution to meet her challenges with racism and discrimination. 

She continued to hear the same responses from her therapists, “Oh you poor thing. That must be very painful. How can you live with that?” 

She didn’t feel seen or heard or empowered.

Feeling Seen and Heard Through Black Therapy

After returning to the states, Jackie connected with her first Black therapist, David. David is a couples therapist, and works with both Jackie and her husband. 

Since their first session together Jackie has felt an underlying sense of familiarity and comfort from David. 

Unlike her prior therapists, David invites Jackie to openly talk about her experiences with racism and discrimination. He trusts the validity of Jackie’s experiences, because he has shared similar ones. Rather than leaving Jackie in a liminal space with her emotions, David holds space for her to be open and vulnerable. 

David also helps Jackie find strength-based solutions to the anxiety and depression that she experiences, including the trauma that she has lived with.

He offers her straightforward and solution-focused guidance that aims to strengthen Jackie’s relationship with herself and her loved ones. 

For the first time in her life, Jackie has found a therapist who empowers her in her own skin. When she walks away from her sessions with David, she finally trusts that her experiences and feelings have been listened to and supported.

Empowering Her Mental Health Outside of Therapy

Jackie knows herself to be prone to experiencing depression and anxiety. 

Outside of therapy, she prioritizes her mental health and wellness through:

  • Mindfulness/Meditation
  • Exercising
  • Visiting her favorite coffee shop
  • Reading a good book
  • Supporting Black owned businesses
  • Limiting her screen time
  • Spending time with her friends and family

Jackie believes that Black people living in the U.S. really need to carve out time for wellness. The racism, discrimination, and trauma that Black Americans can experience makes it essential to care for your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.

How to Find the Best Therapist For You

Jackie’s journey to finding the right therapist took time and effort.

Along the way, she realized that she’d need to try a bunch of different therapists before finding someone she connects

Now, being able to work with a Black therapist, Jackie feels safe, open, and inspired. She is aligned with her lived experiences, and given the opportunity to talk about life from her perspective.

We understand that the number of Black therapists remains low and the need for Black therapists remains high. However, there are several resources in the mental health community that can make your search for a Black therapist easier.

The following online mental health resources feature Black therapists in their directories:

The Take-Away

If you or your loved one is seeking therapy, our client care team can assist you. They can help you find a mental health care provider that matches your preferences.

Forming a strong connection with your therapist can help you improve your ability to grow and heal. Ultimately, this can help you reach your full potential. You deserve to live an authentic and meaningful life, and we will help you do exactly that.  To schedule an appointment with one of our trained therapists please contact us today at 413-343-4357.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.