Mental health is a topic that was not discussed openly in the African American community. It’s more of a cultural practice to keep problems within the family or to simply go to church and pray about it. In recent years however, African American families have broken generational curses of not seeking mental health therapy and are now more willing to engage in services.
In my experience as a pediatric mental health therapist in the inner city of Detroit, MI, parents were beginning to recognize the importance of seeking intervention earlier, rather than later. I would often hear parents say “This is my first time telling someone outside the family our business” or “back in the day we would never be talking to anyone about our problems” or even “I don’t know what to expect from therapy but we really need help”.
If BIPOC families are now, more than ever, more willing to seek support, why do we still see such a high percentage of children and families living with mental health issues?
Due to issues of redlining and other systemic racist policies, BIPOC communities experience less access to quality health care resources. Practically, this means not having enough mental health facilities or facilities having extensive wait-lists. I was working with a teen with severe suicidality and she really needed an in-patient facility. Unfortunately, the facilities that were in the area had wait-lists of hundreds of children at a time, so she would cycle in and out of the hospital every single month, only being held for three days at a time and not receiving the care she needed.
In addition to these systemic issues, another concern I always ran into were families feeling unheard or unvalidated by therapists who did not look like them. When BIPOC folks receive care, it is more likely to be of poorer quality or grounded in a white standard of care. Therapists go through years of training to become licensed, therefore it’s not that they lack the clinical skills, it’s about getting past cultural barriers.
While it can be comforting to a BIPOC client to have a therapist that looks like them and shares similar cultural experiences, all therapists are capable of having a healthy, safe, and meaningful relationship with their clients even if they don't look the same.
To celebrate Mental Health Awareness month, let’s discuss ways that therapists can be more culturally competent in order to break the idea that a BIPOC client can only feel heard and secure when working with a therapist from a similar background.
3 ways to affirm BIPOC clients:
1. Be aware of biases.
- Notice implicit biases ahead of time. Some questions therapists can ask themselves include: "What privileges do I have that others do not?” , “What has formed my implicit biases?”, “How do I respond when someone brings up social issues? Am I avoidant?", “When having conversations regarding social issues am I listening to understand or respond?”
- Take cultural competence trainings through the National Certified Counselor (NCC), American Psychological Association (APA), National Association of Social Work (NASW) and other continuing education platforms.
2. Be direct and broach.
- If you don’t know something, ask! It’s better to ask for clarification than to assume you know something. It shows you’re genuinely interested.
- Don’t assume one BIPOC client’s lived experience will be the same as another BIPOC client.
- Show empathy to client experiences and normalize any resistance a client may be having due to historic and systemic barriers to adequate mental health services.
3. Read, read, read!
Here are some book recommendations that discuss mental health in BIPOC community and ways to become more culturally competent
- Black Families in Therapy: Understanding the African American Experience by Nancy Boyd-Franklin, Ph.D
- Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide to Cultural Competence by Enrique J. Zaldivar
- The Diversity Gap: Where True Intentions Meet True Cultural Change by Bethany Wilkinson
All clinicians have the ability to work with BIPOC clients if they have the willingness to continue to learn and grow. It takes a lot of courage for anyone to seek mental health services and they should find comfort in knowing that the clinician they are working with is able to make them feel heard and respected despite any cultural barriers between them.
Brightline, a partner of Violet.
Brightline brings virtual behavioral health care to kids, teens, and their families, when and where they need it. With multidisciplinary care teams, a family-focused approach, evidence-based care delivery, and innovative technology, Brightline is able to support families with whatever challenges they're facing and help them thrive long-term.
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