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Black People Don’t Need Black Therapists

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In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to reduce the social stigma associated with mental health issues. Years of effort to better understand mental health through scientific evidence and compassionate care are currently bearing fruit. Though it’s safe to say that we’ve been going through it for the past couple of years, the Covid pandemic – as well as the subsequent global economic recession, which destroyed lives and livelihoods on a global scale – have both caused or exacerbated mental health problems for a large number of people.

According to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Black students in the US experienced the greatest increase in rates of depression when compared to students of other races. Although it seems logical that the minority group most affected by a problem would be more likely to seek assistance, Black students were less likely to do so than their white counterparts (45% versus 25%). A lack of racial diversity among mental health professionals was cited as a possible explanation for this phenomenon. To put it another way, there aren’t enough Black mental health professionals.

The same patterns can be seen here in the UK. Is the fact that there aren’t enough Black professionals in the mental health field enough to stop Black people from getting help when they have mental health problems? Curtis Jasper, a Georgia-based psychologist, is one of many who hold this view. Assumptions that white therapists can’t help Black individuals persist, but why?

While I recognise, as a Black woman, that the Black experience is unique, I do not believe it to be completely unrelatable. We share the same humanity as everyone else and are subject to the same range of emotions. Although our encounters with racism, discrimination, and exclusion may, in some cases, be more extreme than those of other groups, they are not so unique or isolated that they render us incomprehensible to anyone outside our “community.”

The idea that Black people can only benefit from seeing other Black therapists is predicated on the idea that it is best to receive help from someone who shares similar characteristics and life experiences. In this case, that would be someone who is Black (or non-White) and may have personally experienced racism themselves. But it seems strange to only ask for help from people who have had similar experiences or who “look like you.” Should disabled people only seek help from disabled therapists? Should adults who have experienced child abuse be limited to therapists who have also experienced child abuse? Of course not. So why do we feel that we won’t be understood just because we are Black? Why does one need to be Black to understand us as human beings?

The lack of a representative workforce has been cited as the primary cause of unequal clinical outcomes and overall negative experiences faced by BAME mental health service users. What is less considered is when these disparities are not the result of professional bias, but rather a consistent lack of trust on the part of patients. Mistrust, whether genuine or misplaced, has a much larger and frequently overlooked effect on the outcome of an individual. We can see this reflected in other sectors of society. 

While I do recognise the value of cultural competency, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if it isn’t present. All feelings and experiences are universal and transcend all cultures, even if the events that prompted them are different and peculiar. Curtis Jasper’s TedTalk exemplifies this perfectly, albeit unintentionally. Initially, he described the years of adversity that ultimately led to his development of panic attacks, including the deaths of loved ones, financial loss, divorce, and moments of solitude. He continued by characterising the events as the “Black experience”.

Some things, such as the range of human emotions and experiences that occur in the ordinary flow of life, do not need to be racialised. Many, however, continue to argue that the racialization of experiences, attitudes, actions, behaviours and even existence itself is necessary for achieving social equity for all groups. Personalising and internalising naturally occurring problems lead to a distorted view of reality in which we believe bad things happen to us solely because we are Black. This is an unhealthy way to live our lives, as it causes us to feel isolated while also limiting our ability to engage with people and opportunities that will benefit us.

Curtis Jasper, after stating how difficult it is for Black men (and women) to receive therapy from white therapists, went on to explain the moment his own life completely changed – and it was when he went to see a white therapist who not only gave him advice that changed the course of his life but is actually the reason why he went from a broken man to a therapist himself. Why is it that a white therapist was able to assist him (in the most profound way), but another Black man cannot receive the same assistance?

It appears that people’s internal narratives take precedence over the reality in which they exist. This is not to downplay the many obstacles Black people face in obtaining mental health care; however, the existence of these obstacles does not necessitate the conclusion that they are all the result of racism and discrimination. Cultural differences exist, but human nature is universal. The majority of our problems, including social conflict, intergroup tension, and misunderstandings, are likely the result of our constant forgetting of this fundamental fact.

Ada Akpala is a social commentator and the founder of Different Voice Initiative.


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