One of the best gifts individuals can give themselves is the gift of counseling. As a person of color, one of the scariest things one may experience involves stepping into a counseling environment when one’s culture has labeled this action as “disgraceful and shameful.” Often the fears and challenges that African Americans voice regarding counseling are seen by counselors as irrational, irrelevant, or as cognitive distortions. After all, depression and anxiety are the same, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender – right?
I respectfully disagree with the idea that mental health challenges are color blind. Such claims often indicate a counselor’s discomfort at their lack of experience with the unique dynamics of the black struggle. Statistics show that ninety percent of African Americans have experienced racism in their lifetime. Social injustice can no more be ignored than religion when feeling the apprehension African Americans experience regarding counseling. In my 25 years in ministry and counseling, I have found that my clients of color enter counseling with distress, distrust, and ambivalence regarding counseling. Let’s face it – black folks don’t go to counseling. If a black person enters therapy, they are truly at their wits’ end.
Challenges African Americans Face in Counseling
Below are a few of the challenges African Americans face when they consider counseling.
- “Only crazy people go to counseling.”
Only people with serious mental defects seek counseling. African Americans often see counseling as an extreme that is forced on them by either the penal system or the social service system. They don’t consider counseling unless they fit into either of these extremes. This has produced a fear that mental distress will lead to being “involuntarily admitted or put away.” Counselors who address this concern up front have a great chance of establishing a successful therapeutic alliance with the client.
- “I can talk to my friends or pastor. Why go to someone else?”
African Americans are more concerned about the financial obligation of counseling. Talking to friends or a pastor usually requires no financial obligation. Attempting to balance other financial obligations (food, shelter, etc.) will overrule the need for mental health services. It is wonderful to have a solid support system, such as friends, family, and church community. However, when confronted with mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety, seeking professional help and having a support system can expand the individual’s ability to recover sooner. It takes a village to help the healing process and counseling makes the difference.
- “The counselor’s race impacts my comfort level.”
In my practice, I have heard clients say: “A white counselor has no idea what it is like to live black,” and “Black counselors are not as qualified as white counselors.” There are subtle ways in which African Americans seek to identify whether an individual holds racist attitudes toward their thoughts and emotions. Both these statements speak of the confusion people of color have regarding therapy. There is individual racism, institutional racism, and cultural racism. The experience of racism is multidimensional and distress can be measured from very stressful to being severely traumatized. Counselors who can empathize with the client and validate the person of color’s challenges improve their participation in therapy.
- “My parents would disown me if they found out!”
Family is huge for the black community. Family includes aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, etc., and a client needs to be careful whom they confide in about going to counseling. Clients experience anxiety about communicating with their social group and/or family unit regarding therapy. The attempt to get help may be seen as a sign of betrayal and/or weakness. Blacks have to contend with others viewing their decision to get therapy as “airing our family’s dirty laundry with strangers.” I have had clients state, “My depression is just not discussed in my family. It is just something you deal with.” I had a client state, “My mother told me, ‘We don’t need therapy. We survived slavery.’” Let’s face it: Few African Americans seek out therapy because of the negative stigma associated with counseling.
- “Counselors will try to talk you out of your belief system.”
Black people don’t go to counseling – they go to church. African Americans place a great deal of importance on their faith. People of color have used their faith in God to overcome and endure the adversities of life. Many people do not go to therapy because they believe church should be the place where they leave everything at the altar. To go to therapy is to say, “I don’t have enough faith in God to heal me.” Educating the client on the dynamics of incorporating faith into therapy is important for the therapeutic process. My clients have found great comfort in using this holistic method.
Christian Counseling is Helpful for All, Regardless of Race
In my experience as a Christian counselor, African Americans do not have a positive history of experiencing counseling. Counseling has a negative stigma for people of color that stems from the racism they encounter every day. My clients have experienced great success by taking a holistic approach to counseling, regardless of their race or gender. Respecting an individual’s culture, religion, and economic situation produces an environment that helps them to process what “keeps them up” at night. I have found that addressing clients’ concerns and fears about therapy up front improves the transition into therapy. You invest considerable time and money in other areas of your lives and it may now be time to invest in your mental health. If you would like to discuss the possibility of Christian counseling, I look forward to working with you.
“African Man Hiding His Face” By Victor Habbick, Image ID: 10078874, FreeDigitalPhotos.net; “Parents on a Walk with their Daughter” from http://www.stockphotosforfree.com