My Search for a Therapist Who Gets Me
I never connected with any of my well-meaning, white therapists. The truth is, good intentions are not good enough.
I’ve had mental illness in my life since I was 12. I write that with the same ease as when I say “we’re out of eggs” or “the internet bill is due.” It’s part of my reality and its drop-ins—mostly triggered by stressful life events or Canadian winters—generally don’t weigh so heavily on me anymore.
But even when it gets pretty bad, I rarely look for professional help. I’m sure this is not a wise choice, but it’s an active one. Because though I have worked with many mental health professionals in the past, I haven’t found on who’s helped me long term. My therapists all had something in common — they were well-meaning white people.
After certain sessions, I felt drained, as if I was a learning resource that a therapist could mine for their own experience. After others I felt more alienated than before, hungover from having to lie and make my background palatable. I didn’t get the satisfying combination of exhaustion and relief that my therapy-going friends seemed to get. I don’t question that my therapists had good intentions or that they were trying to help. The difference between when I first started my mental health journey and now is that I can call good intentions for what they are: not good enough.
More than ever, mental health care is an urgent need for racialized people, especially Indigenous and Black communities. Research shows the repetitive stressors of inequality and discrimination lead to declining mental health. Yet BIPOC access mental health services less often and face more hurdles before and during the process of receiving care, compared to their white counterparts. It doesn’t help that there are few BIPOC therapists in North America—a recent American study found that 88 percent of the health service psychology workforce is white; therapists I’ve spoken to say that counselling in Canada is predominantly white as well. Knowing that this field doesn’t mirror those who need mental health care, my situation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
While working with my therapists over the years, the most prevailing piece of advice I received was essentially, be more white. None of them said it in those words, but they didn’t have to.
I’m a first-generation immigrant from China. Unsurprisingly, some of my issues stem from a sense of displacement, or a tension between my family’s culture and the pretty white world I move through. Instead of guiding me to find solutions that uniquely fit me, my therapists often attributed my problems to my cultural upbringing. Whether it was expectations my family had for me or the uneasiness I felt from my changing identity, many of them saw my Chineseness as something archaic and problematic that I needed to liberate myself from.
A few of them also did not know what to say when I vented about the racism I encountered in my life, apart from, “that must be very difficult for you.” Aggressions and microaggressions were treated like freak incidents, instead of an external pattern that plummeted my mental health and at times put me in danger.
I didn’t always get to choose my therapists — many people who go through work, school, or community centres to access free or affordable counselling often get assigned a practitioner, and often the only preference they can indicate is gender. And when I was doing my private search, the BIPOC therapists I queried were often booked solid.
I’m not naïve — having the same background, race, or gender with your therapist isn’t a magic elixir. It doesn’t guarantee a better connection, or that they won’t make mistakes. What I know is it would sure save time (and thus, money). I’ve spent too many 50-minute sessions painting a word picture of my cultural background instead of diving into the meat of why I was on the couch. Afterwards I leave unsatisfied, defeated by the crash course I just paid to give to my white therapist.
You can’t heal if you’re constantly translating or code-switching. That’s labour, not healing. While I worked with these therapists, I longed for unspoken understanding that came from shared experience. I wished that I could dive into the problematic parts of my upbringing without trying to protect it from judgment at the same time.
Most of my white therapists also weren’t aware how big of a leap it was for me to get professional help to begin with. Not only is the process arduous and unaffordable, many BIPOC may come from communities where receiving counselling may be perceived as frivolous, or worse yet, shameful. In my own community, counselling is seen as an admission that there’s something really wrong with you or something white people do when they’re both rich and bored.
While working with my fourth therapist, I shared that I didn’t tell my family about therapy because of their dismissive attitude towards mental illness. Later on, at my lowest, I expressed an overwhelming fear that I would hurt myself. She looked at me from her armchair without changing her expression and said, “did you know families almost never recover from having a child commit suicide? Think about your family when you want to hurt yourself.”
Even though her intention was to prevent harm, she had weaponized one of my deepest anxieties and used it against me. I stopped going to her entirely.
Each time I parted ways with a therapist, I really believed I would never find a practitioner that made me feel safe and heard. I would avoid therapy for months or years, knowing it was not sustainable. Self-reliance coupled with mental illness is a dangerous combination for BIPOC, especially during this precarious time—we are contending with a pandemic, growing loneliness, and a necessary but retraumatizing conversation on racial inequality. I need a therapist who gets me.