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Bad Trips for Good Clients | Finding a Therapist while Black

Credit: Polina Tankilevitch and Pexels.

Mental health advocate Asia Lee’s maiden voyage with therapy would have made anyone hesitant to go back. Lee shared traumatic memories with her therapist of family homelessness and domestic violence. Her mother was an abuse victim who responded to the stress in her life with rage and a dominating, bullying demeanor that deprived Lee of her own voice. Lee herself wound up carrying many of her mother’s bad behaviors into her own adulthood.


But Lee’s therapist ignored the obvious impact of her problem childhood and gave her a blanket diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

It was easy for an older white man to say there was something wrong with me without truly getting to the bottom of who I am,” Lee says.


Sessions deteriorated into “cookout conversations with a judgmental auntie.”

Lee later accepted a reference from a friend and tried a new therapist who has experience with domestic violence situations and members of the LGBTQ community. The new therapist quickly tossed the bipolar disorder diagnosis and determined Lee to be struggling with emotional dysregulation. Lee was soon learning effective coping mechanisms to help her deal with her childhood trauma, and she is on the road to unlearning years of bad behavior.


Her first experience is not uncommon for young Black women unsure of how to access care, however. Another 26-year-old woman in New York, who requested BGX withhold her name, says she abruptly ended her relationship with her therapist when the sessions deteriorated into “cookout conversations with a judgmental auntie” rather than meaningful dialogue on how to make better choices in her dating life. Rather than analyze the reasons she was falling back on bad men and toxic relationships, the therapist delivered surface-level chastisement and told her to stop doing it.

Dr. Jinaki Flint says don't afraid to test your therapist.

Dr. Jinaki Flint has spent the last six years conducting private and group therapy sessions with students at Tulane University in New Orleans. Flint says she’s well aware of how the combination of being young and marginalized can put some clients at risk for nonproductive or even harmful encounters with mental health clinicians.  Flint offers a short list of suggestions to young Black women seeking therapy for the first time.

1. Ask many questions, no matter how seemingly basic


Beginning interviews with questions about how a therapist works is good best practice. Clients should expect answers that state explicitly how the practitioner will use questions, techniques, and tools in each session and how this might impact the client’s experience.


“If you don’t know a lot about therapy, ask them, ‘What is therapy?’” says Flint.


A quality therapist won’t be surprised by this because it’s not unusual for people to come to their first session uncertain of what they want from the experience. The therapist should be able to explain the therapeutic process and their specific approach in a way that’s clear, without jargon. They’ll also invite questions and encourage a potential client to ask even more, rather than trying to shut it down.


2. Assume nothing. 


If you do luck up and find a Black or non-white therapist, there’s no guarantee the therapist isn’t a traditionalist pushing ill-fitting ideas.


“Most people when they see (a Black therapist), they automatically assume ‘safety’,” Flint says, but don’t. While it’s understandable a therapist who shares your cultural identity would put you at ease, remember it’s the person’s approach to therapy and their cultural competence that matters. Traditional training is still the rule in most psychology curriculums, so even Black graduates must make an effort to think beyond the confines of their training. This means Western methodology still infects the therapeutic process of plenty of nonwhite therapists.

Thankfully, you don’t need extensive knowledge of the difference between Western methodology and indigenous practices to see the difference. Look for a therapist who doesn’t rush into a pathological diagnosis without the full integration of a client’s culture and background, Mind, body, and spirit should play a role in any diagnosis.


3.  Use online resources.


The hunt for good mental healthcare is already mainstream, so young people and Black folk no longer need to rely on whispered referrals to get help. Dr. Flint encourages clients to visit Therapy for Black Girls for resources on finding a therapist who’s culturally competent and experienced with Black clients. The site also offers a guide on getting your search started and a podcast where Black women share stories of seeking mental wellness.


Keturah Kendrick has written for various publications including NBC News, Huff Post, Newsweek, Insider, USA Today, and Next Avenue. She is the author of the award-winning book “No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone.” Read more of her work here


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