Gearing Up For Counseling As An African American American

Seeking the support of a mental health professional can feel much like a task fraught with uncertainty, fear and intimidation. Gearing yourself up to share your most vulnerable moments is not simple. Where do you begin? Who should you reach out to? When and where to go are all questions that one faces prior to initiating counseling.

The path towards healing is increasingly difficult to prioritize, especially as an African American, while everyday life is complicated by a divided political climate and a pandemic that has compounded inequities.

The stigmas attached to counseling can also belabor one’s desires to seek outside support. From a cultural perspective that is ever more compounded by the diaspora of Black people throughout our world, the messages received about counseling add to the stigma and generational avoidance of professional counseling. For these reasons, African Americans have traditionally sought support from their places of worship, friends, elders, prayer or just ignored their mental health needs altogether. The resilience of the African American community is one to be honored and respected, but as we all seek to heal our communities, families, and ourselves, new approaches to wealth and wellness are required.

Clinicians enter this career field with many intentions. Supporting, partnering with and advocating for the mental health needs of all, are some general hallmarks of the helping profession. Others enter this career path with particular research and focus on the African American family and community. Looking at mental health from a whole-person perspective, it is inevitable to work with and against historical trauma, lived trauma and experiences, as well as the social and political determinants of health equity.

The social and political determinants of health equity are factors which include neighborhoods, access to quality health care, affordable housing, access to parks, trauma-informed approaches in schools, hiring practices in one’s community and more. It refers to the practices, either unknown or intentional that make it harder for all people to live fulfilling lives. The Satcher Health Leadership Institute posits that, “The political determinants of health create the social drivers – including poor environmental conditions, inadequate transportation, unsafe neighborhoods, and lack of healthy food options – that affect all other dynamics of health. By understanding these determinants, their origins, and their impact on the equitable distribution of opportunities and resources, we can be better equipped to develop and implement actionable solutions to close the health gap.” These are important to not only understand as an individual to overcome inequity but are also important factors for a mental health professional to be aware of as they sit in collaboration with clients of color.

Through partnering with clients, it is the obligation of counselors to not only offer solutions when things are going in an undesirable direction but to also advocate for them while focusing on their inherent abilities to thrive. African American clients seeking therapy not only contend with the realities of society or societies misunderstandings of what it means to live life as an African American, but who to trust when looking for understanding, support, equitable access and belonging.

Here we offer just a sample of possibilities to prepare for, prior to beginning your journey towards healing:

1) Be Your Own Advocate!

Advocacy comes in many forms and this does not stop when seeking the support of others. It’s okay to request a clinician of color for you to feel more comfortable. Many agencies and independent clinicians have access to networks for referrals, to ensure that you receive the representation that you seek.

2) Cultural Competence is Required

Not all POC understand or come from similar backgrounds. A culturally competent and culturally sensitive therapist will do their due diligence to meet you where you are, while remaining on a continuous learning path.

3) Come prepared to Challenge Yourself/ Consistency

The therapeutic process is contingent in your desire and ability to change. As you come to counseling, be ready and willing to challenge yourself to share and learn to reach your goals.

4) Tell YOUR Truth

You are the ultimate expert of your life. Trust yourself and your desire to heal and evolve from issues that you seek to change. With this trust in yourself, the counseling process has increased potential for success.

5) Historical Understandings

While many African Americans find it difficult to fully trace their ancestry, there are common threads of history that can be gleaned to understand the full potential, strength and capabilities of our genealogy. This knowledge can be used as a tool towards change and motivation throughout life and the counseling process.

6) Thriving Vs. Surviving Mindset

Yes, African American people are resilient! Resilience is an amazing quality that enables people to bounce back from adversity. As you seek out counseling, it is also important to come with future goals of thriving, as opposed to pure survival. This is not to minimize your challenges but simply a way to help you visual a life beyond current circumstances.

7) Reliance of the Confidentiality of Counseling

Counselors are ethically and legally bound to maintain confidentiality within the professional relationship. As seen in the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, Section B, Counselors aspire to earn the trust of clients by creating an ongoing partnership, establishing and upholding appropriate boundaries, and maintaining confidentiality. There are limitations to the process, all which will be fully communicated to you prior to beginning services.

8) Mind/Body Connection

Mental wealth is far more than an occurrence in your head. Attention to your diet, sleep patterns, intake of alcohol/drugs, and overall stress levels can help to ensure that you receive the most out of your counseling experience.

9) Community/ Family Support

Support from others can come in many ways. This may look like an accountability partner, a therapy group with others in your area, telling a parent or spouse about your new journey, or something completely different. Having positive support through this journey can help to keep you motivated to press on.

If you are geared up for counseling, Thriveworks in The Woodlands is a local, regional, and national partner, equipped with culturally-responsive clinicians who are ready to work alongside you. Call (281) 667-9790 and one of our scheduling specialists will assist you. We look forward to helping you take back your life!

Written by Krystal Grimes, MS, LPC-Associate; Clinician with Thriveworks of Bastrop, Texas, local convener of healing and diversity initiatives and creator of Healing History: A Community Conversation Series.

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