9 People Of Color On What Going To Therapy For The First Time Was Like
Seeing a therapist is a nerve-wracking ordeal. It may be hard to open up about your heartbreak, and about some of the most embarrassing, painful, and even happiest moments of your life to, well, a completely stranger. This is especially true for women and nonbinary people of color who are going to therapy for the first time, given the cultural norms that can make it much harder for marginalized people to seek out mental health support.
Though communities of color are just as impacted by mental health issues as white communities, people of color are less likely to receive treatment services. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported, factors such as higher levels of stigma, insurance coverage, cultural insensitivity, discrimination, bias and language barriers can keep women and nonbinary folks of color from getting quality care. Still, as writer and editor Rajul Punjabi reported for VICE, more millennials of color are going to therapy — despite facing these systemic barriers.
For many people of color, seeking out an affordable and accessible mental health provider is often just the first step in the process. Monique Castro, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the founder of Indigenous Circle of Wellness, tells Bustle that the next step is often finding a provider who is culturally inclusive, and it can be a challenging one — but, she says it's "vital" for women and nonbinary folks of color who are seeking mental healthcare.
"Culturally inclusive therapy honors and supports the inclusion of ancestral knowledge, traditions, stories, music, medicine (indigenous medicine, such as plants, herbs, etc.), family lineage, community, relationship to all creation, and so much more," Castro explains. "Culturally inclusive therapy is a true invitation to share openly, freely, and with appreciation of who someone is. [...] Far too often, folks of color, or any underrepresented group, are pathologized for simply being who they are — this includes being labeled, and obtaining an incorrect diagnosis simply because standard mental healthcare forces therapists to fit their clients into boxes."
Nine women and nonbinary folks of color share what it was like to go to therapy for the first time, and how they found culturally inclusive support.
1. Melanie, 26
"My first time in therapy was at the age of 16 or 17, and my older sister urged that I go after I confessed to her that I didn’t want to be alive anymore. There were negative connotations towards therapy in my Hispanic and Asian household, so I never felt comfortable talking to my parents about my major depression.
"I don’t remember the name of my first therapist, and he was my therapist for about six months. I just remember that I didn’t like him, I thought he was a joke, and that I would leave every session crying. I didn’t feel empathized with or understood, but I am happy that I went back to therapy, and found a few amazing therapists throughout the years."
2. Alieshia, 29
"As a Black woman in a predominantly white state, having an African American female therapist has validated my experiences in ways I didn’t realize I needed validated. I can open up completely without feeling like I need to portray a toned down version of myself to be socially accepted and understood."
3. Katherine, 25
"When the psychiatrist at the university that I was attending at the time suggested to send me to a referral, I asked it was possible for her to give me the name of a psychiatrist that was Black and female, and somehow living in Portland, Oregon. She sent me a list, which only featured two names on it because they were the only people that took the insurance that my school offered.
"Meeting the new psychiatrist was a shock. She looked like me and understood my culture and what life might have been like as a young bBack woman. It was incredibly refreshing. I only saw her once because I couldn’t afford seeing her again, but it was just enough to know that she existed."
4. Katie, 25
As a queer woman of color living in Utah, Katie had a difficult time finding a therapist covered by her insurance who wasn't white, or religious — which turned her off to the idea of going to therapy. However, after asking activist communities on Instagram for advice, she has just begun virtual sessions with a therapist located on the East Coast so she can work on "navigating whiteness, class, and activist burnout."
"I'm excited to finally take this step," she says.
5. Achea, 39
"At first, seeing a therapist after my diagnosis felt like I was being weak. I felt like I was being 'too dramatic,' and that I was wasting money by going and talking to a complete stranger about all of my personal business. In the Black community, doing something like this was considered being 'too white.' I was afraid to put my family secrets out there, and with my dad being a preacher, I was scared to give Christianity a bad name.
"Once I started to make progress and understand the value of therapy, I began to realize that there is no difference between seeing a doctor for the body or a doctor for the brain. Now, I have no shame in seeing a professional for what I know is a completely valid health issue. It's changed my life."
6. Irina, 33
"The first time I went to therapy was when I landed in rehab, at age 29, for alcohol [use] disorder. What I didn't know at the time, and quickly found out thanks to my Latina therapist, was that I had a lifelong undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Connecting with my therapist at the time, who was Cuban too, was incredibly helpful in recognizing how some cultural barriers and immigrant issues had built up, and accentuated my anxiety throughout my life and had led to my alcohol issues.
"After I got sober, I had a white therapist who was great, but there always seemed to be something missing in our conversations. [...] Recently, I switched therapists and specifically looked for a fellow Latina because I felt that we could connect on a deeper level — and I was right! There are just certain conversations that I can now have, about my father's machismo or my mom's Latina 'mom-ness,' that I couldn't have with any other therapist."
7. Alexandra, 21
Alexandra explains that the first time she saw a therapist was an eight years old for obsessive compulsive disorder. "It was uncomfortable to be that vulnerable with someone I had just met," she says. "I was young, so I didn’t quite understand why I was in therapy, or what it was. Over time, it got easier."
8. Paula, 27
"Living in an area where there are not many people of color who are practicing therapists made me hesitant to go, because I spent hours upon hours looking for the right person to go to. Rightly so, my first time going to therapy made me feel misunderstood because the therapist was not a person of color, and did not understand my background — much less my culture," Paula explains.
However, she says that when she began seeing a therapist at graduate school who actually tried to understand her "family structure, norms, cultural values," and just how she processed things, she felt more willing to open up to the healing process.
9. Evan, 23
"Going to the therapist in the first place was a huge step for me because, in Black culture, people who go to the therapist are considered weak, or 'crazy.' In Muslim culture, we're expected to 'pray the mental illness away.' The biggest issue with my first three therapists (who were all white) is that I had to explain all of that to them, as well as explain what it's like walking between genders," Evan says. "It was clear to me that while they were sympathetic, they didn't quite understand, and they kept giving me the same tired advice that I'd tried a million times before."
"It wasn't until I got a therapist of color that I started to make progress, because she automatically understood how stressful it is to constantly check if you're being the 'right kind of minority.' We were able to address both that anxiety, and get to my underlying issues."
Castro says that directories — such as Therapy For Latinx, Therapy For Black Girls, and the National Queer And Trans Therapists of Color Network (NQTTCN) — can make finding a trusted mental health providers for first time therapy-goers an easier experience. Though racial bias and inaccessibility persists around mental healthcare and counseling in the mental health field, women and nonbinary folks of color are making their wellness a priority.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.