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Bridging the Gap Between Therapists and the BIPOC Community

A continued conversation with Eliza Boquin, MA, LMFT, and Eboni Harris, LMFT.

Key points

  • When it comes to mental health, Black men are more likely to be misdiagnosed with a personality disorder.
  • Some therapists may wrongly overshadow their client's thoughts and feelings with their own experiences.
  • Community outreach and socialization are necessary to build BIPOC communities' trust in therapy.

This post is part two of a three-part series featuring Eboni Harris and Eliza Boquin, founders of the Melanin and Mental Health podcast. You can read Part 1 here.

Image courtesy of Melanin and Mental Health LLC
Eboni Harris LMFT and Eliza Boquin LMFT
Source: Image courtesy of Melanin and Mental Health LLC

ML: The three of us are not just people of color; we’re women. Not that long ago, even to Sigmund Freud, anything that a woman expressed outside of society’s norms was called "hysteria."

EH: Exactly. Women would go talk to someone or get locked up because they weren’t fitting into whatever people thought the idea of a woman should be. That’s another reason why women struggle with the DSM.1 It’s very dated. Sometimes diagnoses get taken out of it that were very harmful to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. When we talk about healing trauma experiences we’ve had over centuries, we’re including medical and mental health trauma. There’s trauma around talking. Someone might be scared their kids will be taken away, or they might be deported. Will it be on their record or impact their benefits if they’re in the military and talk about PTSD? Black and brown people have gone through such experiences, so it’s no wonder they label therapy “dangerous.” How can they believe therapy is helpful? We’re trying to shift the way people think about therapy and even the way it’s conducted. We have to build trust in our communities so they get to know us and find out that we get them. We have to do it through community and socialization.

What the podcast Melanin and Mental Health hopes to achieve

ML: How can therapists be more trustworthy for BIPOC communities? How can education for therapists bridge that gap?

EB: We have to acknowledge that there is racism in the mental health field and BIPOC people are more likely to be misdiagnosed. Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder, defiance, or misdiagnosis.2 They’ll be undervalued or questioned about the veracity of their experience. Our communities don’t go to therapy because historically, it hasn’t been safe. These are uncomfortable conversations, but we’re going to speak to white audiences also. We saved a conversation on our social media asking the question, “What’s the most racist thing a therapist has said?” One person’s husband had been shot and killed. The therapist asked if he was in a gang. One woman had been diagnosed bipolar because she changed her hair color. We also speak up within the field.

ML: There should be a certain level of discomfort because everybody’s got to stretch outside their comfort zone and say, “I’m not comfortable being outside your comfort zone [because of my skin color].”

EB: For therapy professionals, we underestimate the power of how healing it is just acknowledging various things affecting the clients and validating their experiences. Our long-term goals of doing this work are getting people into therapy and getting more BIPOC people in the field.

ML: I gave up on a therapist in the first session. She told me her method was to solve a problem in 10 sessions. In the first session, she asked me about my childhood. I was like, does she really think she can solve a problem for me in 10 sessions and start with my childhood? I told her I grew up a Black kid in a white town, so I felt like an outsider all my life. She said, “You’re not Black.” I was like, “We’re done here.” I didn’t need to start with having my racial identity challenged or questioned.

EB: It’s that invalidation and dismissal of a person’s identity.

Therapists shouldn't overshadow the client or remake the client in their own image

EH: Some therapists struggle with recognizing how much of an expert a client is with their own life. My goal for a client’s therapy is to learn how to trust herself. Therapy is a place where a client is supposed to feel most comfortable. The therapist shouldn’t overshadow your thoughts and feelings with their own experiences.

EB: These are human lives we’re trying to support. It takes a lot of inner work as a therapist to show up fully. Where so much of the healing happens is through the connection. To feel connected to this person, I have to know that they see all of me. Taking race out of it, the client can’t feel connected to the therapist.

ML: I didn’t want to be re-molded in her image or whatever she thought I was supposed to be. I wasn’t searching for a quick fix, and I certainly didn’t want to start with, “You’re not Black.”

References, History of the DSM.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

National Library of Medicine, Journal of the National Medical Association, Beyond misdiagnosis, misunderstanding, and mistrust: relevance of the historical perspective in the medical and mental health treatment of people of color.

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