Therapy can be a difficult topic in Black communities. From the stigma of discussing mental health in African and Caribbean households to the financial barriers of accessing therapy, seeking therapy when you have no experience of it just doesn’t seem like the 'normal' thing to do. It’s not like we regularly share details with our friends of how to find a therapist, either. But as Black people, we have too many things happening around us and to us to put therapy off any longer.
As if being in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t enough, dealing with public discourse on systemic racism and the experiences that Black people face around the world means that we have to handle a lot. According to Rethink Mental Illness, Black women are more likely than white women to experience a common mental illness such as anxiety disorder or depression. White people, however, are twice as likely as Black people to be receiving treatment for mental health issues.
If you've already taken the huge step of deciding to seek therapy, then congratulations; you've already overcome an enormous milestone. But where to start looking for a therapist? With some help from Dr Tamara Vaughan, a senior chartered psychologist in the NHS and private practice, we've mapped out what you need to know when you're beginning your therapy journey.
Finding the right therapist can be a lengthy task
You might be trying to find the 'perfect' therapist but the truth is it’s unlikely to happen the first time around. It may feel easier to stick with the first person who gets back to you to save time and money, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. There are different types of therapists and they offer different types of therapy, such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy, which can be quite overwhelming to understand when you are starting out. Connecting with a therapist in terms of their style and approach is important too, and not everyone will naturally gel.
As a Black woman, you’ll also need to think about choosing a therapist who tries to understand more than just common stress factors. "A therapist may not be right for their kind of awareness of broader issues, like race, political and social issues too," says Dr Vaughan. "From my experience, you tend to have a gut sense of whether it feels right."
By pacing yourself and giving yourself time, you will find the right therapist for you. Dr Vaughan recommends thinking about what you actually want to get from therapy and if you would like to learn specific skills to cope with stress or anxiety. Thinking about who you want as a therapist is key to narrowing down your search. Start by contacting around three different therapists and ask for an initial consultation.
The reasons to start therapy are endless
Issues involving trauma, depression or abuse are common reasons to seek a therapist but according to Dr Vaughan, Black women are increasingly seeking therapy for other reasons. "Black women would come to therapy for really traumatic relationship difficulties, family issues or severe depression. What I’m finding more of now is that Black women are wanting to explore the situations in their life and how they are navigating them," she says. This includes maternal experiences too, for example when women start thinking about having children.
Some issues may feel more difficult than others but you can seek therapy for what you consider to be minor, too. No problem is too minor for therapy and everyone’s struggles are relative to themselves. We are expected to deal with stress in different areas in our lives and eventually it will take its toll and potentially become unmanageable. Disliking your job or looking for a life partner are normal reasons to talk to a therapist as well, according to Dr Vaughan.
While you may feel you could speak to a friend about these issues, COVID has definitely thrown a spanner in the works. We're not seeing and connecting with people in the same way we used to, so therapy can be a checkpoint for yourself. As we try to figure out what we want from life during lockdown, exploring our identities is a valid reason to set up a few sessions with a therapist. The benefit is that your conversation will be different from a venting session with a friend and will help you to approach your situation from a different angle and reflect. Regardless of your reason, Dr Vaughan encourages you to give yourself permission to start.
Self-care starts at home
As much as we all need it, therapy can be really expensive and we aren’t all in the position to schedule regular sessions for long periods of time. You can supplement your sessions with other activities to do in between to look after yourself. "Some of the things I might suggest are things like yoga, breathwork, dancing in your living room to a bit of music – anything that helps you really connect with your body in a real kind of nurturing way," says Dr Vaughan. Other calming ideas could include running a warm bath or lighting candles, giving you an opportunity to slow down and check in on yourself.
Another idea of self-care is picking up a hobby – and not the second-income-stream kind of hobby! Something as simple as colouring weekly or journalling can be helpful, Dr Vaughan suggests.
The goal is to pick something that you enjoy and stick with it, so try to create a routine about your self-care activities. The most important thing is that it works for you.
There are affordable services
Therapy can be quite inaccessible for many people, especially when trying to find a therapist for the long term, so taking advantage of free and affordable resources is important. Luckily, there are a few organisations that factor in Black women. "The most appropriate one is called The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network," suggests Dr Vaughan, which houses the largest directory of therapists of colour. Not all therapists on the directory will offer low-cost sessions but there are many who offer concession rates depending on your situation. It’s worth reaching out to a few potential choices and asking if they provide reduced rates.
There is also Black Minds Matter UK, which connects Black people to free professional mental health resources in the UK. Although there is a waiting list, once you are selected you can receive a free 12-week course of therapy.