It’s a common refrain: “Black people don’t like to go to therapy.”
But actually, this narrative doesn’t paint the full picture – nor is it completely true, anyway. As Black therapist and client myself, I’ve experienced that it’s not that Black people don’t like to seek therapy. Rather, the problem is that there are present day and historical reasons that may prevent Black people from seeking therapy.
Two major obstacles prevent Black individuals from seeking therapy
A study conducted by my colleagues and myself (Awosan, Sandberg & Hall, 2011), highlighted two obstacles to therapy. These were: Lack of cultural understanding, and stigma about going to therapy.
Lack of cultural understanding
Many Black individuals point to lack of cultural understanding of Black culture as the reason why they don’t seek therapy. Given the historical and present day experiences of racial oppression and marginalization in a majority white country, plus institutions with mostly white providers (such as the medical and mental health fields), many People of Color – and in this case, Black people – are mistrustful of the psychotherapy field.
Misrepresentation – of Black cultural identities, experiences, and relationship values. Misdiagnoses. Subconscious assumptions. All these influence not only the worries, but the actual experiences, of lack of cultural understanding by therapists for many Black clients.
Particularly in working with white therapists, many Black individuals fear that their therapist will not fully understand their cultural or racial experiences. And sadly, many clients have indeed experienced that their therapist doesn’t demonstrate understanding of, or respect for, their experiences as Black individuals.
Stigma from within the community
I believe this fear of lack of cultural understanding, coupled with negative experiences from friends and family who have sought therapy, calcifies the stigma that “therapy doesn’t work” or that “therapy is for white people” within Black communities.
Unfortunately, such stigma reinforces the need to seek help for difficult mental, emotional, and relational issues from non-therapists. Many from the Black community turn to family members, friends, communities and/or religious leaders.
It feels safer to seek help from a family member or friend whom they know wouldn’t judge them or misrepresent their values. It feels safer to reach out to a Minister or an imam who will understand how their spiritual values can help eliminate their problem.
In other words, to protect themselves from further misrepresentation of their identities, values, and experiences, many Black individuals find it difficult to seek mental, emotional, and relational professional assistance from therapists who are not aware of, or responsive to, their cultural or racial context as Black people in the United States.
What therapists can do to increase access for the Black community
To help eliminate the obstacles of lack of cultural understanding and stigma around seeking therapy for Black individuals, there is a great need to recruit and train more Black therapists, as well as therapists of Color.
In addition to recruitment and training of Black therapists and therapists of Color, regardless of race of the therapists (Black, of Color, or White) there is greater need for culturally aware, informed, and responsive therapists who are able to work effectively with Black individuals, couples, and families.
It is important that all therapists not only perform cultural awareness by including photos of Black people on their websites, but also address the issue of culture and race within their web copy and in the therapy room. Awareness and culturally-informed clinical skills are critical in making mental health care more accessible and approachable to Black communities.
A hopeful outlook for the present and future
Despite the barriers that prevent Black individuals from attending therapy, there is a growing number of Black women and men who are seeking therapy.
Black individuals who do engage with culturally-aware, informed, and responsive therapists often report that therapy is beneficial and helpful to reducing stressors, tensions and problems (Awosan, Sandberg & Hall, 2011).
In the early days of my career, I realized that this narrative that “Black people don’t like to go to therapy” is embedded in the daily struggles of Black people. The daily struggle to fully exist, be seen, and understood in majority white spaces. Black people do desire, and would like to seek out therapy, in spaces that affirm their existence and identity – and with therapists who are aware, sensitive and responsive to the daily struggles that they experience in the United States of America.
Dr. Awosan’s contribution is part of our series in honor of Black History Month.
- Awosan, C.I., Sandberg, J.G., & Hall, C.A. (2011). Understanding the experience of Black clients in marriage and family therapy, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 37(2), 153-168.doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2009.00166.