As self-care messages and memes take over our phones, laptops, and consciousness, mental health is trending. It’s true. If you haven’t already noticed, it’s almost impossible to scroll through social media these days without an advertisement for therapy popping up – and thank goodness.
We’re living in stressful times. For some of us, mental health and access to mental health services is finally becoming a reality that’s not as scary or stigmatizing as it was in years past. For many in the Black community and particularly the Black LGBTQ community, this is a huge leap in the right direction.
Tons of baggage comes along with the views and treatment surrounding mental health in America. Historically, sexism, racism and stigma has prevented people from receiving competent and humane care. Fortunately, that was the past – mostly. The mental health profession has evolved past the days of lobotomies, ice baths and overused and unregulated ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).
Today, in an attempt to reduce stigma and more accurately diagnose and treat those suffering with a myriad of mental health conditions and disorders – language, along with treatment, has evolved. We no longer refer to people as crazy, retarded, shell shocked or sick in the head. Though the United States still lags behind in how we care for our most vulnerable populations, science has propelled us to look more deeply at causes and connections while finding more suitable characterizations.
Now more than ever, with the stress of the disproportionate deaths of Black trans women, the COVID 19 pandemic (we’re still trying to recover from), a sweeping housing crisis and social justice issues polarized by the deaths of Black folks like Tyre Nichols (at the hands of Memphis law enforcement); you’d think everyone able would be flocking to the couches of mental health professionals.
But that’s not the case. How race intersects with gender and orientation impacts the lives of BIPOC communities is enough in itself to prompt many to seek a Xanax prescription instead of a relationship with a therapist.
So why are Black Americans (including the Black LGBTQ community) still resistant to seek help from others? A culture that reinforces stigma, along with lack of access seem to be the most prominent driving factors. It is these very issues that numerous ad campaigns and public health advocates are working toward reversing.
With the use of diverse representation, lived experiences and the convenience of telehealth platforms – attempts at normalizing the idea of seeking mental health services for LGBTQ BIPOC communities are being made. For greater clarity on the issue, we spoke with a mental health advocate and a few local professionals.
Reia Chapman, MSW, LCSW is a Charlotte area therapist with her own practice. At The Center for Family and Maternal Wellness, PLLC, Chapman counsels a variety of clients and can be found guest lecturing on Decolonizing Therapy; a global movement that is radically reimagining the old mental health paradigm. With a focus on assisting clients in healing from past traumas, honoring their history, cultivating liberation and harvesting joy, Chapman works with clients who have not always been treated with a culturally informed lens. “It is not a framework for just queer people of color, but it is for systematically excluded populations at various intersections of their identities. So, when we talk about decolonization, we’re talking about how people have been systematically excluded from access and advancement.
“There is a difference between access and availability,” Chapman continued. “People often conflate those things because you can now go online for therapy and many community centers now offer therapy. But when you add the layers of access, privilege and class you realize that it’s still not equitable for everyone.
“Some of that doesn’t have to do with orientation, but class. In North Carolina we live in a state where people can still be discriminated against based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation. These individuals may not have employment that provides health insurance [to] offer that access. People who are gender diverse often work lower paying jobs and gig work. Many of those who make it to America’s corporate arena are often white and male presenting. There are those of us who work for big firms like Bank of America, but that’s not the norm for the majority.”
When reflecting how trauma over the loss of Black life from police violence is processed, Chapman confirmed that she’s worried.
“About desensitization,” she explains. “As much as I worry about our trauma response when things like the murder of Tyre Nichols occur. Unfortunately, it’s become part of our social fabric that when these things occur, there’s been a script developed that takes a lot of physical, emotional and psychological labor to organize around the murder of one body. People who can get their voices heard are the ones most likely to be seen – everyone doesn’t have the know-how or the connections to do that. Not having those connections creates a pathway of anger, internalized despair, hopelessness and self-destructive behaviors.”
In conclusion, Chapman offered suggestions to help deal with and heal from such instances. “Just because you haven’t been acknowledged doesn’t mean what you’ve gone through isn’t real or didn’t happen. You deserve to have your pain acknowledged by the world and it shouldn’t take local government to respond to injustice. Finding a community to validate your experience has value. Connect with people who can support you. That might be finding culturally appropriate care, finding a clergy person and finding a way to mobilize your pain. It’s okay to grieve – give yourself permission to be stunned, stuck or grief stricken. That is just as important as figuring out what to do next.”
When John Rowell, Jr. a Black gay man from Durham, North Carolina faced pain and internal strife in his own life, he knew what he needed to do. Rowell advocates for seeking healing through therapy.
Says Rowell: “Mental health means having your heart and mind connected as one and being able to clearly understand how your body and mind are feeling. It also means not always second guessing what’s going on and what you might need and want as far as healing, your boundaries and the people you surround yourself with.”
Rowell is a public health worker and he’s enthusiastic about the benefits of counseling. “I love therapy. It is a process. Finding the right therapist and knowing when you’re ready is the most important piece. You’ve got to be open and prepared. Therapy is life changing. So there’s a conscious step needed; you have to understand generational curses, the pain, sadness, whatever brought you to therapy. You have to be ready to push all that away and behind you and [begin] anew.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Rowell also talked about the frustration often felt when seeking a therapist to mesh with in a beneficial manner. “I’m working on my [latest] therapist out of four attempts. My first wasn’t very affirming. I was newly out, trying to find a sense of identity and he didn’t make me feel comfortable. [Another] made me feel like she was just after my money, so I left her too. This time, I felt like I needed to find my own and not one that was recommended or given to me and it is working.”
Rowell explained how he found the therapist he’s happy with. “While attending a PrEP appointment I spoke with my PrEP Navigator and disclosed that I needed a therapist. I chose a woman, because outside of my dad, I’ve found that most men are not in touch with their emotions enough for me.”
For those still on the quest to find the ideal therapist, he offered, “When you find the right therapist, you know, because everything flows and you’re having feelings of I never thought about it like this.” He concluded that with a good therapist, “You learn how to reframe your life. It might get a little lonely and even scary. But remember, the people that are meant to be in your life will be there and accept that you’re changing because you’re trying to better yourself.”
Therapist Maruka Rivers, LCSW, CCTP, CDBT is founder of MRiversAwakenings Healing Collective PLLC. She’s also an LGBTQ community member who specifically services the BIPOC and LGBTQ community. If you ask her what she does for a living she’s apt to tell you, “What I do is liberation work. It’s nothing to be free only in the physical if you are bound mentally and physically.”
She explains why she believes the work she does is important: “Because there’s a huge need. What I know is that mental health, mental wellness [and] the capacity to heal and thrive has been historically stolen, not a priority or cared about by larger society. So, it’s important that we reclaim our birthright, which is wholeness. In order to be a free person and a free spirit in the world we must be liberated from violence, oppression and trauma.”
Rivers weighed in on why maintaining mental health is key for the BIPOC LGBTQ community. “We have been disconnected from healing as a whole, because our indigenous practices have been stolen from us and the price to use those practices was violence or death.”
As for why more Black Americans are seemingly resistant to seeking therapy she offered, “Therapy was not [historically] our indigenous practice. But we learn how to adapt and choose sources of abundance, like the house/Ballroom community when those who birthed us have turned their backs on us. Now we have an opportunity to choose therapy and even incorporate our indigenous practices, like African spirituality and divination.”
Rivers acknowledged that therapy may not be for everyone, but that healing is a self-investment. She offered a compassionate and affirming reminder, for those in need. “Know that there are options. At the end of the day, whatever you choose, choose yourself.”