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Decolonizing Therapy: How Traditional Therapy Can Be Counterproductive

Elisa Lacerda-Vandenborn, a Brazilian theoretical psychologist, distinctly remembers her disappointing experiences with therapy as a graduate student in Vancouver, Canada.

Lacerda-Vandenborn mourned the loss of her support network back in Brazil while suffering culture clashes. Her new culture had a different set of values that left her feeling alienated and vulnerable.

“Yet, the counselor did not consider these cultural aspects and instead chose to focus on my self-esteem,” said Lacerda-Vandenborn, now an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, where her research areas include aboriginal counseling, colonialism, and Eurocentrism. “At the time, I felt invalidated and frustrated because my problems were being attributed to my personal inability to cope.”

Stuck in an abusive relationship with therapy

Traditional counseling services are based on the belief that individuals are independent and autonomous. Cultural, socioeconomic, and political nuance were never part of the equation. “Psychology," Lacerda-Vandenborn claims, follows a "rigid format that was built for a particular group that has privilege and power."

Systemic racism and racial biases regularly leave U.S. African American and indigenous communities with disproportionately higher rates of depression. But when they walk into a psychologist’s office with logical feelings of anger and persecution, the therapist downplays the role racism and discrimination plays in it.

“Instead, they are told they are aggressive or have problems with impulse control. Psychology is implicated in this process because this field created the language, tools, and practices to individualize problems that are social in nature,” Lacerda-Vandenborn said, and added that the system’s outdated focus on individualism often ends up perpetuating the oppression of certain groups.

In the last few years, however, a growing number of clinical psychologists are shifting focus towards decolonizing therapy. Traditional forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), feed into ideas of neoliberalism that disregard how systemic racism impacts communities of color.

A CBT approach, for example, offers few strategies for aiding a patient suffering under racist hiring practices because all arguments turn inward and do not address the employer’s bias. At best, a CBT therapist may ask you to consider other factors why employers selected other candidates and argue that hiring decisions are about job requirements, not a verdict on the patient’s skills, experience, or qualifications.

While that approach can be highly effective for some people, it still fails to consider systemic discrimination and racial biases.

New Jersey-based clinical psychologist Jennifer Mullan said the self-exploratory focus of the CBT tactic cannot always help Black and brown people. They cannot just think their way out of racism. To believe so is Eurocentric.

“Decolonizing therapy involves looking at how the mental health industrial complex continues to inflict harm on people because it chooses to remain apolitical,” she said. “Decolonizing therapy is (partly) about undoing the narrative that just talking about your feelings is enough."

As a therapist, Mullan has observed how darker-skinned adolescents and gender fluid or trans people frequently receive more diagnoses for behavioral disorders like oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. Misdiagnoses of this caliber risks pushing children into the school to prison pipeline or the juvenile justice system.

“Nobody was identifying the root cause, which is trauma,” Mullan said. “[…] I continue to see the intergenerational trauma oozing out from people of color we have been serving. We have also been witnessing this distrust towards mental health providers, including myself.”

“The system,” she added, “is failing to address the incessant, historical grief caused by things like the lack of access to healthcare and clean running water in many communities of color, all of which is political and not a personal illness.”

During her dissertation, Mullan referenced a psychology professor who discouraged her from delving into inter-generational trauma and racism because those topics are “too political.” Psychologists, he claimed, are not supposed to be political.

“Back then, I experienced emotional and race-based traumatic stress and harm by professors, and in this process, I felt more alone than ever,” she said.

Those experiences further reaffirmed her belief that getting political is necessary. Traditional therapy can be beneficial for people trying counseling services for the first time, but it falls short of helping patients requiring an oppression-focused approach.

How decolonizing therapy can address intergenerational trauma

Mullan said the field must look beyond psychology theorists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Decolonizing therapy, she said, should look back “to indigenous wisdom for collective healing.” Yet, the field often overlooks the work of non-white mental health professionals like Nancy Boyd-Franklin and Jamaican cultural psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Hickling—who wrote about decolonizing global mental health.

Mullan said “decolonizing is more than social justice, and it is not a metaphor.”

In his 2020 paper published in Transcultural Psychiatry, Hickling noted that British sympathizers in the 19th century set up Jamaica’s mental health system with the agenda of “carrying out the ‘civilizing mission’ of the British Empire.” The system they created, he wrote, was “oppressive from its inception and hopelessly inadequate to meet the mental health needs of the 21st century.”

Research suggests that race-related trauma can leave a chemical mark on victims’ genes, and may even “have biological and behavioral consequences” on their offspring. But the good news is that epigenetic damage can be reversed with trauma-focused therapy that stops the vicious cycle of passing down generational wounds.

To make that happen, however, mental health professionals need to be significantly more equipped to manage long term historical and complex intergenerational trauma. Mullan said clinicians cannot ignore colonization and historical trauma.

“This trauma we are collectively facing is both ancestral and yet very futuristic at the same time,” Mullan said, “and I think that this level of speaking out and ferocity is healing.”


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