No two therapy sessions are just the same—because no two people are just the same. We all have different problems. We all heal at different rates. And we all respond to therapy in different ways. But that’s not to say common themes don’t emerge—such as those that appear in counseling for African-American men and for African-American women. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Patrice Douglas is here to discuss those themes and explain how counseling differs for African-American men and African-American women.
Counseling for African-American Men
Douglas says that counseling for African-American men often centers around their need to acknowledge, accept, and manage difficult emotions, due to their suppressing them for so long: “Counseling for African-American men differs from other races because they don’t identify with having emotional problems,” she explains. “They have difficulty admitting to their problems because they feel that they are signs of weakness and from the time they were born, it was instilled in them to be strong and fearless. African-American men have difficulty even sitting in a therapist’s office without having guilt for needing therapy because the things they are battling are ‘not a big deal.’ They aren’t taught to be vulnerable, so when they try and get turned down by family, it can lead to severe depression and even suicide,” she says, adding that according to the American Association of Suicidology, 80% of African American deaths by suicide are in fact men.
To best help your African-American male clients, Douglas says you’ll have to push them to open up about their emotions and really get them to understand that having these emotions is a normal part of life: “The biggest obstacle with counseling a African-American man is reminding them they are human; therefore, it’s okay to have emotions. It’s okay to hurt. And it’s okay to not be okay at times. She goes on to say “it is important to encourage them to open up about their problems, as they have been conditioned that speaking about their emotions changes their masculinity.” Furthermore, if you suspect they may have a more serious issue or mental illness, “to not label their symptoms from the start. Most African-American men don’t identify with symptoms of depression; so instead, use their language of how they describe themselves and then as the relationship progresses, use clinical terms.”
Counseling for African-American Women
Similarly, “African-American women, just like African-American men, are conditioned to believe life is hard from childhood due to being African-American so they often come to therapy when they are falling apart,” Douglas explains. However, African-American women are looking for a place to be vulnerable and in search of an individual’s compassion: “African-American women find therapy to be a safe place to talk about their fears and how society treats them so they can begin to heal. African-American women have had to be strong their entire existence, so being in a place where they can be weak and build themselves back up is what they need to continue to be mentally strong. They do not want to go to a therapist who keeps telling them they are strong because of their circumstances; they want compassion and someone to understand their pain.” In conclusion, “it is important to encourage them to say they aren’t okay and allow them to talk,” says Douglas.
Graduate student Shelby Keye is a perfect example of how therapy can help African-American women come to terms with their struggles and build themselves back up. “Therapy helped me find myself,” she says. “I remember telling my therapist that I would try so hard to appeal to all of these different people who would expect me to be a certain way, and I couldn’t do it. I would completely change my personality based on who I was with because I wanted to be what they wanted me to be. It was giving me so much anxiety and stress that I couldn’t handle it. My therapist helped me learn that [pleasing everyone all of the time] just wasn’t possible. I had to kind of relearn who I was and what type of person I wanted to be without worrying about if that was okay to other people.” She goes on to say that she hopes opening up about her own therapy journey will help others take that step toward healing. “I want people to know that you ARE good enough, you DO have meaning, and you WILL find your way,” she says.