A young person of color receives teletherapy at home from a therapist of color.

Op-Ed: The Importance of Therapists of Color

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Charlie Health's Director of BIPOC Programming outlines why representation in therapy matters for young people of color.

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Did you know that the mental health workforce in the U.S. doesn’t reflect diversity?

A recent study by APA’S Center for Workforce found that over 86% of psychologists and therapists are white. The other mental health professionals are homogenous. The statistics show structural disparities for individuals from underrepresented communities.

This is perhaps one reason why people of color often find it difficult to find therapists who look like them and share the same cultural experiences. Teens and young adults of color are no exception. It often feels like a burden to explain your problem and experiences as an individual of color to psychologists and therapists. It is challenging to enter therapy with a history of oppression and racism.

This troublesome dilemma has led the country to an increased mental health crisis among young people of color. Black families try their best to safeguard their kids from racism by preparing them to communicate the threats, bullies, and traumas they face. But this is precisely when they need someone who understands the root cause of the problem and addresses it meaningfully.

In this regard, therapists of color can play a crucial role in helping deal with mental health issues, anxiety, and depression. As therapists of color understand racial socialization, they can help parents protect youth in the face of trauma and stress.

If you belong to a family of color and are looking for a therapist for your teen, learning why it is essential for them to be matched with therapists of color is critical to making an informed decision.

Why do Young People of Color Need Therapists of Color?

When considering the needs and problems of teens and young adults of color, it is crucial to focus on their unique experiences and backgrounds. It is paramount to understand what it means for young people to have a therapist or mental health professional that looks like them and understands where they're coming from.

Youth are sensitive and need someone who reflects and represents their identity. They need space to process and share their experiences without adding stress. Teens of color particularly need a therapist with whom they don’t need to explain or feel fearful of being judged, invalidated, marginalized, or misunderstood.

With the resurgence of political and racial tension against people of color, finding a therapist to help young people show up authentically in the therapeutic space has become even more critical. The history of oppression and racism is connected to the current circumstances of the deteriorating mental health of Black and brown youth.

Unfortunately, socioeconomic factors have also disproportionately affected the mental health and wellbeing of young people of color. Teens are fragile and need more emotional support to understand the reasons for what they face. Only a therapist of color can understand the history and background of systematic inequality and help young minds deal with traumas and mental health problems.

Young adults and teens in the US have a different relationship with their mental illness compared to their white peers. In fact, the suicide rate is relatively higher in Black teens and communities of color than their white counterparts. In many families, talking about mental illness is still taboo, let alone asking for help.

The recent data shows that a large number of families of color don't seek professional help for their kids' mental issues, or when they do, they have limited access.  

Therapists of color are aware of the prevalent racial-ethnic disparities in mental health. They acknowledge the importance of having more mental health professionals of color to improve the mental health of Black and brown youth.

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Benefits of Therapy for BIPOC Youth Led By Therapists of Color

As mentioned above, the lack of representation in the mental health field, in addition to ongoing racial disparities, have contributed to the challenges the BIPOC population experiences, including teens and young adults. This is why many Black children face race-related trauma, anxiety, stress, and stereotypes.

Racial match–when mental health providers and clients share the same race or ethnic identity–has been described as one element of culturally responsive care and a potential factor in reducing mental health disparities for ethnic minorities. In a counseling situation, therapist ethnicity may be one of the most important features to which clients first attend, and one of the deciding factors in whether or not they will remain in therapy (Meyer & Zane, 2012). Therapy led by therapists of color for Black people is vital, as it honors their unique experience and identity. It provides young people in particular with a confidential and safe atmosphere that is only theirs.

Discussing the problems with someone who truly understands their mental state and circumstances allows teens and young adults to share their feelings confidently. It also helps them explore their emotions and experiences better.

Therapy groups are also a part of therapy sessions in which children of color can meet or connect with like-minded peers, make friends, and share their thoughts and experiences. Many therapists of color design these groups to provide Black children with a space in which they feel secure. The friendly environment allows children to be emotionally vulnerable as they know that their therapist understands and supports them.

The therapists of color for young people will listen to each client to get to know them better. It helps the therapists customize individual treatment to target symptoms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, or unresolved trauma.

Moreover, teens and young people can develop better skills for coping or dealing with their stress and learn to be more proactive in their daily life.

A therapist of color conduct online therapy

Impact of Healthy Discussion on Mental Health and Racial Socialization on Children

Many types of research on mental health emphasize discussing “racial-ethnic socialization” or having race talk early in childhood or adolescence. It typically involves educating children of color about their ethnic and racial heritage. A healthy discussion on the topic helps children prepare to cope with the bullying and societal discrimination they may face as they grow older.

A bulk of evidence shows that engaging in ethnic and racial socialization discussion with Black youth can improve academic performance, reduces behavioral problems and depression symptoms, and provides a positive identity attitude.

Researchers noted that by talking about racism with children of color, therapists prepare them to overcome hardship and allow them to view their identity in society more positively.

Summing Up

Therapists of color can help Black youth target their traumas and mental health issues better than other mental health professionals who cannot always acutely identify with the unique problems faced by the community. Young people feel more secure and confident in the presence of a person who is like them and who can understand what they’re going through without stereotyping or judgment. Therapists of color provide validation for clients of color in a world where mental struggles are still seen as taboo and allow them to feel safe, seen, and emotionally free.

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