Black Folks and Therapy: In need of a new narrative ( a brief interview)
Why do you think it’s hard for minorities to share their experiences in regards to their mental health?
I think certainly in the African American community this is a layered question, which has multiple answers: (here are at least three, in no particular order)
Many of us come from a tradition where families hold their “secrets” in house. Some of it is related to the idea that we take care of our own troubles, and do not let others see our so called “dirty laundry.” Some of this is linked to how we have utilized our own cultural traditions to manage health and some of it is linked to African Americans historically not having access to the same health services as others so we had to take care of our problems within our own communities. At times, even when we have had access, there has also been legitimate mistrust of the medical establishment.
The second thing is that many of us have been given the notion that there are certain emotions and vulnerabilities that we are not “allowed” to talk about because they have become associated with weakness or too much vulnerability. I think this also has roots in survival mechanisms that grew out of a societal context that has been oppressive and dangerous, where showing fear, sadness and even anger could mean real danger (and still can). I think that outward survival mechanism has adapted over time and has morphed into a cultural norm that makes it even harder to admit when someone may be experiencing psychological and emotional challenges even to their closest friends and loved ones.
Also, many of us, whether we identify as being religious or not, come from a cultural context of Christianity. The way many of us have been taught spirituality has suggested that relying on human beings to “solve” or “fix” problems may somehow be an affront to God and that we are supposed to “go to God” with whatever ails us. This extends to the idea that psychological and emotional difficulties can be prayed away. I certainly believe and know that spirituality can be an integral part of the healing process. At the same time, most African Americans who endure physical pain, discomfort and illness have less difficulty taking those issues to a medical doctor versus coming to see a mental health provider. For example, most African Americans who make it into mental health care in the public sector have come through primary care settings first. I think this double standard is dangerous for us.
I also think there is a lack of knowledge about what psychological experiences even constitute something that warrants further attention. For example, if I stop talking to my friends for a week, don’t answer my phone, stay in my room and don’t eat much, am I just having a “moment” or am I sliding into depression? More education can also help people make decisions about under what circumstances seeking treatment might be most appropriate.
2. Do you think transgenerational trauma plays a role in how we think about mental health in minority communities?
Absolutely! There is no way that a group of people who have endured the oppression, violence and disenfranchisement that African Americans have, can emerge unscathed. While our community has made and continues to make incredible strides, the marks of inter-generational trauma are clear in macro ways such as the violence in our communities and also in more specific ways, such as the existence of physical and sexual violence within our own families. Trauma takes not only physical forms, but also emotional. For example, a child can suffer the effects of trauma if they grow up in a home where adults are violent toward each other, even if that child never experiences the physical violence themselves.
I think we should approach communities of color with a trauma informed lens, with cultural sensitivity and with a socio-political understanding of context regardless of whether or not we are treating people who have been diagnosed with a trauma related disorder or mental health problem. Just being exposed to a traumatic environment can impact emotional and psychological health.
As African Americans, we need to learn to not only value our health, but to know that it is our right to take care of ourselves and to seek help when we need it. We do not need to suffer just because we have a shared cultural history that takes the suffering of Black people for granted. We deserve to be healthy and whole!!