It was my third year of graduate school and my occasional anxiety was becoming more pervasive. At the start of grad school I committed myself to finishing in 5 years; the pressure to meet this goal came to a head as I tried to balance my classes, clinical training, research and teaching assistance-ships, and work on my own research. My thoughts were racing, my stomach was frequently upset, and I was exhausted so I decided to go to therapy to get help. I have to admit that it was easier for me to take this step than it is for many people; I had access to low-cost therapy at my university’s counseling center, I was surrounded by clinical psychologists who affirmed the utility of going to therapy, and both of my parents are clinical psychologists (I know!). I am writing this post and doing this blog in part because I have experienced the power of therapy – as a client and a clinician – and I know that for many black women therapy does not seem like an option or something that could help.
There is a large stigma in the black community about mental illness and going to therapy. This stigma is due in part to longstanding distrust of medical institutions that have a history of mistreating black people. There is also a belief that if you have a mental illness and seek therapy you must be “crazy.” Further, black people are socialized to be strong and will our way through difficult situations. Finally, black people tend to value community and family connection, which prompts many of us to seek family and community members for help and makes us less open to receiving support from people outside of our community. While the causes of this stigma and subsequent avoidance of therapy are understandable, the fact remains that this stigma is keeping some black women from seeking therapeutic support that might help them live more healthy and joy-filled lives and in some cases might even save some black women’s lives.
There are some people who find the general idea of therapy to be acceptable and think it is fine for other people to seek help but believe that for them therapy would be a sign of weakness. These people may struggle through hard times and stay in survival mode for years. While many of the problems that people deal with in therapy might be survivable without support, life is not just about surviving. Therapy can help you address issues and grow in ways that help you to thrive. Additionally, I believe it takes great courage and strength to engage in therapy, look deeply at the things you may be doing to cause suffering for yourself and others, and take steps to change these behaviors.
Therapy can help. Through my own therapy, I experienced the healing power of gaining a greater understanding of myself in the context of my family and my childhood. I learned to let things go and trust myself more. I came to better understand my patterns in friendships and relationships, which helped me to make different choices and have healthier relationships as a result. As a therapist, I have had the wonderful opportunity to witness and facilitate the life-changing growth that happens through therapy. Having the space to be honest and authentic and to be fully accepted is powerful. Further, as a therapist I am in the unique position to gently challenge unhelpful beliefs and behaviors of my clients and help them to think about healthier ways to engage in their lives. I believe that most people can benefit from therapy.
Some reasons to go to therapy: (note: this list is not comprehensive)
- You’re anxious, depressed, irritable, having mood swings, and/or stressed
- You’re having difficulty with your relationships
- You want a space that will help you to grow
How Therapy Helps
Therapy can help you deal with the issues listed above in addition to other concerns because it provides a safe, nonjudgmental, confidential space for people to open up and explore themselves and their relationships. Many people question how therapy is any different than talking to friends or family members. While receiving support from friends and family is essential, therapists offer an unbiased, objective perspective and are trained to understand the psychology of individuals, couples, and families in ways that the average person does not. This insight enables therapists to help their clients identify unhelpful patterns of behavior, understand how past experiences influence their lives now, learn new ways of relating to themselves and other people, and develop coping strategies to manage difficult symptoms and inevitable stressors.