In July, I completed a continuing education (CE) book chapter on multiculturalism and social justice from the American Counseling Association (ACA) and I was very much impacted by this piece. The CE piece by Paul B. Pedersen and Manivong J. Ratts (Ph.D) called Multiculturalism and Social Justice: A Revolutionary Force in Counseling and Psychology was so inspirational for me. Over the last few months, I have spent much of my time thinking about my role as a counselor and my future within the profession. While working on this blog for the Counseling Today magazine, I had begun to feel that I wanted to do more than just therapy. I felt that I needed to put more effort into advocacy work. After reading this piece by Pedersen and Ratts, it was cemented in my mind that I wanted to become an advocate for counseling and mental health. The chapter is from their book, Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory, and Application, and it is a book that is now added to my book list, and based on this book chapter from the ACA, a recommended read to any counselor who wants to have a positive impact with diverse clients.
I have met many clients who have struggled with race in therapy. They feel distant and unconnected from their therapists. Some struggle with their therapists who they experience as being judgmental or shaming when they try to share their cultural or racial issues. As a therapist who is a woman of color, I experience the two sides of therapy. I experience clients who are of different racial backgrounds and may react uncomfortably to the differences between us. And I experience clients who are thankful to see therapists that are reflection of themselves. I have learned that racial and cultural issues are still difficult topics within the mental health field. Outside of stigmas about mental health, stigmas regarding particular racial groups still exists within therapists and within clients. But it is interesting to me, that many therapists appear to be very uncomfortable discussing these issues. Within peer groups, these discussions seem to be few and sometimes one-sided. Therefore, if we have such difficulty discussing these topics amongst ourselves, how can we possibly be prepared to discuss these issues with our clients?
As I mentioned above, I did the social justice CE in July and the month of August has been a lesson in American racial history. For African American clients, the lessons in August are nothing new but that does not make it any less traumatic. African Americans experience daily reminders that they do not belong in this country and that they are not good enough. Therapy is supposed to be a scared and safe space for clients to explore their pain and suffering and to experience a chance at healing. If therapists are uncomfortable with discussing these issues, then where should clients go to feel safe? The consensus in this country seems to be that if we advocate for and celebrate minority groups and underserved populations, we are somehow attacking the majority culture and groups. It seems that it must be one or the other. These viewpoints are what’s being manifested in our country today. The Counseling Today magazine shared the article, Facing the Realities of Racism in January 2017, no one had any idea how quickly society would begin to crack under the pressure of long-held beliefs and values. I belief that times like these are when therapists and the field of mental health can really show the value we add to society and its population.
The last couple of my blogs have been focused on underserved populations, of which I have now come to recognize that there are a lot of. I’ve realized that the downside of mental health is that it is focused solely in the individuals that the mental health issues affect. There is a strong lack of support to the family systems of these individuals. If our beliefs are that we are social creatures and we operate within groups, how can we only target the individuals that are dealing with the mental illness and ignore their family systems? Counseling is supposed to be a wellness-focused field; wellness is achieved by optimizing the strengths in each individual’s life. This is across the board with mental health issues, include substance abuse, domestic abuse, poverty, mental health disorders, etc.
This view applied to minority groups is even more detrimental. Minority groups often lack access to resources and are oftentimes, taught to not seek help. Oftentimes, minority groups suffer in silence when they should not have to. Therefore, it is essential to target these groups and let them know they can seek assistance and that they are not alone and isolated. The thing about therapy is that it is often needed most by the people who do not come to therapy. This is why I have been drawn to advocacy work. It is about bringing awareness of issues that need to be discussed and working for changes that need to happen. As we experience the current societal beliefs and values, mental health professionals are essential to help heal our societies and provide safe havens.
I believe greatly in the value and access of mental health services to all, especially minority groups. As Courtland Lee noted in the ACA article mentioned above, people of color live with much intergenerational and pre-existing trauma which is why mental health services are even more essential for them. Combined with daily triggers of poverty, single parenting, lack of resources, lack of educational opportunities, and other social issues, healthy mental health is extremely difficult to achieve and maintain. Hence, I started the blog, The Gray Matthews Project to target African Americans to advocate and spread awareness of the importance of mental health, especially in African American and minority groups.
The importance of mental health should be advocated to all groups. We have only to turn on the news to be flooded with negative imagery, Charlottesville and Spain. We all minimize the lasting effects of these traumatic events on our psyche. We underestimate how traumatic these events really are and how much they really affect us. We all must practice self-care and take the time to reflect. We must recognize that we are more alike than different; we must focus on our similarities more than we focus on our differences if we want to heal ourselves, our families, our nation. We must be willing to be empathetic and listen to each other.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.