For eight months, I was regularly seeing a woman and virtually no one knew about her. I changed my schedule for her. She took precedence over phone calls. I laughed with her. Cried with her. Shared dreams with her. Confessed struggles to her. This woman started me on a path toward a healthier, more fulfilling life. She was my therapist. My secret therapist.
Some people (OK, one person ) close to me knew of her, but by and large, she was simply “my appointment downtown.” My “meeting after work.” The “friend” I was “meeting at her office.” Granted, some of this ambiguity was merely because I’m a keep-to-myself kind of girl. But there was another factor, one I couldn’t really articulate. It had to do with the taboo associated with psychological therapy. I feared that a number of people in my community had certain stigmas attached to people who saw a therapist. I guess I didn’t want to be one of “those people” to them. So, for a while, my dealings with this woman remained a very covert operation.
As an African American Christian, my cultural experience taught me to “hold my peace and let the Lord fight my battles.” To simply pray about things and trust that God would fix them. Somewhere along the way, I learned that in order to be successful, I needed to simply overlook many of the stresses that accompanied being black in America. Many of us are taught never to ask for (or admit that we need) help; it’s sign of weakness, and we are a strong people. Don’t get me wrong, I value these lessons and think their premise is needed in order for African Americans to see beyond the societal labels placed on them. But do these lessons – ingrained in many African Americans from childhood – potentially inhibit us from seeking emotional/mental help? In her book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” Terrie M. Williams suggests that our “black power” has caused us to (unhealthily) mask our black pain. Is this true?
I’ve come across a few cultural beliefs that may fuel the stigma of psychological therapy in the black community:
- Don’t air dirty laundry
- Not comfortable discussing personal problems with a professional and/or authority figures
- Some things are better left untouched/Don’t rock the boat
- Do whatever you have to do to keep peace in the family (even if it involves bottling your pain)
- All you need is God; according to Isaiah 9:6, He is your “Counselor” (Especially true for those of us who grew up in church.)
- Only “crazy” people go to therapy
- It’s not a financial priority
- Seeing a therapist is an outward admission of your (or your family’s) failure to handle problems internally
- There is fear of misdiagnosis or extreme diagnosis
When our children need educational help, we find a tutor. When we need spiritual help/guidance, we pray, meditate, go to church (or a myriad of other things depending on your faith identity). When we need physical help getting in shape, we go to the gym. And if we can afford it, we may even get a personal trainer. Oftentimes, we brag about how much we are able to lift with our trainer – how many miles we were able to run. Why not be just as proud and intentional in reclaiming our mental health when needed? Is that somehow less important than the others?
In her Psychology Today blog, “Culturally Speaking,” Dr. Monnica T. Williams (a black psychologist) talks about her frustration in not seeing African Americans take advantage of the help available to them. She cites a qualitative study that found that among Blacks who were already mental health consumers, over a third felt that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles. And so, they don’t talk about it. And as long as we’re not talking about it, the stigma will remain.
In other reading, it seems that many African Americans agree that schizophrenia, severe depression, and suicidal thoughts warranted psychological intervention, but that if it’s not “serious” like those, you should be able to deal with it on your own. But who decides what’s “serious?”
People who grew up witnessing abuse, or a parent leaving the home – not “serious” enough? Those who grew up hearing gun shots, fearing for their lives while walking to school – is that “serious?” What about those who are confused about who they are because they’ve been told they’re going to hell for “acting gay.” Or the lawyer who’s totally unhappy and is only a lawyer because her parents expected it. What about the lady who keeps finding herself in abusive relationships? Or the friend who is constantly gaining weight because she eats her pain? Are those “serious?”
Some may not have labeled my reasons for seeing a therapist as “serious,” but I knew this woman had been trained to help me rethink and deprogram a lot of things that were inhibiting me from experiencing my “best life.” And so I went. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Now I’m not suggesting that we all go running to the nearest therapist, but I am suggesting that we make room for these conversations at our dinner tables and sorority meetings.
I am always seeking to be better than I am, and I long to see people be better than they are. When I find something that contributes to my fulfillment, I’m compelled to share it to possibly help others on their path toward a more fulfilling life. So, I wanted to engage this dialogue. Maybe it’s for the simple act of engagement. Or maybe it will encourage someone who’s considering therapy, to look beyond their preconceived notions and take the step that may change their life. I’m no therapist (only an advocate), but if you have questions about my process, please reach out to me. I’m happy to share my experience. After all, if you’re reading this post, my secret therapist is no longer a “secret!”
- Black Women And Mental Health: “I’m Not Crazy” (hellobeautiful.com)
- Picking a therapist: Finding trusted professional means homework (seattletimes.nwsource.com)