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Why Minorities Can't Always Be Honest and Authentic In Therapy

One of the first things a therapist will tell you is that they want sessions to be a safe space for you to say whatever you feel without the fear of judgment or consequences — so you can be completely honest with them. For people of color, that isn’t always simple or possible because of the extra challenges Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) face, and the assumptions made about us.

Therapists will also tell you they will protect your confidentiality unless you are a risk to yourself, someone else or if a child is being abused, in which case they will have to contact the police. That makes my first statement about being honest with a therapist a little harder.

As a person of color, I am wary of being completely honest with my therapist when I am struggling with suicidal ideation because I know that the police being contacted could actually be more harmful than helpful — it could even threaten my life. BIPOC (and Black folx in particular) with mental health issues are more likely to face physical violence from police officers while they are in crisis than other demographics. Furthermore, the risk of violence increased for Queer folx who may be misgendered, subjected to homophobia and homophobic violence, or placed in situations that compromise their safety.

While my privilege as a brown (and non-Black) person has helped keep me safe during my interactions with police during mental health crises, I’ve also been treated less than favorably by police. In fact, I still face symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) around my interactions with police more than five years after they were last called for a mental health crisis. I wasn’t beaten or murdered or treated with excessive force like so many BIPOC with mental health issues, but I was yelled at, threatened, subjected to intimidation tactics and ultimatums, and treated like a criminal — with suspicion and mistrust. Most of this happened while I was alone with the police, and I was treated much better when my white friends were around. Each experience I’ve had was traumatic in its own way, and I don’t remember all of the details, but I know I am absolutely terrified of police being called when I’m experiencing a mental health crisis and I would never want my therapist to call them. They didn’t help — they made it worse, and every time I hear about yet another wellness check ending in death or murder in the news (most recently Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, Ejaz Choudry), I’m reminded that it’s not safe to have police involved in these situations because of the color of my skin. It’s a problem that exists for BIPOC not only within formalized therapy, but might also dissuade them from reaching out to crisis lines or support centers, who also will often call the police if there is a risk of self-harm. If all crisis roads lead to police, we aren’t creating safe spaces for BIPOC to express the depth and seriousness of their crisis, and are putting them in further danger.

I recently tried to explain this to my therapist, and opened up about the racial trauma I’ve experienced with regards to mental health issues and law enforcement in order for her to understand why I find it difficult to express just how unsafe I feel sometimes. While she was receptive, she also seemed surprised and concerned, as if this had never crossed her mind. That’s because in her mind, her training and conditioning has told her that the police are the safest option, when the opposite is true for minorities.

Another reason I’ve found it hard to be honest with my therapists, is because I don’t want to confirm their largely incorrect assumptions about brown people or Muslim people. As a minority, I am often painted as part of a monolith, and our experiences are often assumed to be universal for everyone which is not only incorrect but unfair as well. It places an unnecessary burden on me to constantly have to represent a diverse group of people in therapy. I don’t want to confirm the negative stereotypes or assumptions white therapists might have about certain religious, ethnic or cultural groups I am a part of.

A prime example of this is when I talk about my experiences as a Queer person who is also Muslim. While it has been difficult to navigate those two identities, it’s frustrating when I feel like talking about it means I’m bashing my Muslim identity and my therapist can’t understand the nuance of that. I’ve had multiple therapists, and before I even talk about those complications, every single one has been shocked that my parents have been accepting of my gay identity because they’re Muslim. They all assumed that I would be disowned or treated badly because of stereotypes they’ve seen about Muslims being homophobic.

Seeing that I’m brown, I’ve had therapists also assume that I was raised in a really oppressive and abusive household towards women. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to convince my therapists that I was not physically abused or beaten as a child, because they make that assumption based on the colour of my skin. Because of that, it makes it harder to talk about challenges I have had with my culture or my parents because I don’t want to be further perpetuating negative biases and assumptions about brown people. I feel like I have to censor what I say or be careful in order to protect those communities I am still very much a part of.

It’s hard to be critical about Islam or struggle with my faith identity when I know that there are already so many negative views out there in the media, and I don’t want to further contribute to those. When I’m constantly having to think about how to represent my faith and culture in a light that is better than what is usually seen in the media, while also wanting to be honest about the difficulties that have come with it, it’s hard to be honest and authentic in therapy. It’s frustrating having to juggle the two in a space that is supposed to be free of judgment and bias when it so clearly isn’t.

There is an urgent need for the mental health system to evolve to better support BIPOC, the LGBTQIA+ community and other minorities so that we can be more open and honest in therapy and experience greater healing. This means culturally-sensitive, anti-racist and anti-oppressive teachings to better equip our therapists with the tools they need to support a diverse range of clients from all walks of life. White therapists often don’t have the contextual understanding or training to be aware of how socialization and family systems work in “non-western” cultures, and therefore cannot provide adequate support or advice. It also means we need to create opportunities for marginalized people and minorities to enter careers in mental health, to better inform best practices and provide better support. Ultimately, we can only heal if we are fully seen, heard, and understood. Seeing minorities as the individuals we are with unique experiences and trauma in a truly non-judgmental, unbiased way with greater sensitivity and training is the only way to achieve that.

For more on finding a disabled, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC or religious minority therapist, check out this article from Mighty contributor Araya Baker.

Getty Images photo via AaronAmat

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