From chattel slavery — where descendants of Africa were brutally beaten, sexually abused, and socially crippled on American soil, to the Jim Crow Era, where Black people were terrorized for voting and prospering economically — trauma related to racism has taken many forms and caused much damage. 

And it hasn’t stopped. 

Black people are exposed to trauma more than other groups. But we struggle to access competent mental health therapists who can identify and treat the stress of navigating systemic racism in the U.S.

With nearly one-in-five, or 6.8 million, Black people reportedly living with mental illnesses — and racially-motivated violence still a social evil — New Jersey-based licensed clinical social worker Aaliyah Nurideen says finding a therapist who understands racism is important. 

“Our experiences as it relates to racial trauma is one that cannot be understood through explanation alone. It is especially important that we are processing our trauma within an environment that is not counterproductive to our healing,” Nurideen says. “This is a risk if you are receiving therapy from a provider that does not understand or validate your experience by dismissing, minimizing, or doubting you, which can actually re-traumatize you.”

Finding a culturally competent therapist is not as easy as it sounds, and it is not as simple as finding a Black therapist.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Black Psychology suggests Black therapists, when working with Black clients, have a “better understanding” of their clients’ lives and “most often feel a distinct sense of solidarity.”

While receiving care from a Black therapist proves to be beneficial, they make up only three percent of the psychology workforce as of 2019. However, having a Black therapist doesn’t mean they’re automatically qualified to provide anti-racist care either, Nurideen explains. 

“Finding a culturally competent therapist is not as easy as it sounds, and it is not as simple as finding a Black therapist. However, starting with directories like Therapy For Black Girls, Therapy For Black Men, Open Path, Melanin and Mental Health or referrals from people that you trust can help point you in the right direction,” she says.

It’s widely recognized that racial bias has affected the quality of care Black mental health patients receive, resulting in misdiagnoses in some cases. But knowing what to look for at the start can make a big difference. 

Nurideen suggests asking questions like “How do you practice anti-racism professionally?”; “How do you describe your role as an antiracist?”; and “How do you incorporate racial identity within your therapeutic practice?” when interviewing a potential therapist. 

Our traumas are unique, and it would behoove us to ignore how this impacts our mental health.

Overall, a competent therapist will provide a sense of security.

“The layers of cultural competency show up in validation, respect, introspection, and a high tolerance to sit in an emotionally heavy space as it relates to lived experiences of racism and racial trauma. It is a huge red flag if you do not feel a sense of security within your therapeutic relationship. You should feel comfortable that you can freely process the occurrences of global and individual racial traumatic experiences that are affecting your mental health,” Nurideen says.

Nurideen — whose practice as a therapist seeks to provide coping strategies to manage racial trauma, positively affirm Black girls, and address implicit racial bias in social work — says she “would love for all Black people to be cocooned in healing.”

“I am a huge advocate of finding the specific methods that work best for you — whether that is through a therapeutic relationship or building community,” Nurideen says. 

“But one thing that cannot be debated is that the Black experience is unparalleled to any other — our traumas are unique, and it would behoove us to ignore how this impacts our mental health. Certain aspects of our lived experiences manifest in trauma, physical symptoms, discomfort, anxiety, depression, generational burdens, and maladaptive coping skills that therapy with the right therapist can significantly alleviate.”