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Jul 14, 2020

What happens when it’s YOUR mental wellness in jeopardy? A tale of a Black therapist who needs therapy.

By: Jazmone Wilkerson, J.D., LCPC, NCC

I identify as a Black woman who grew up in a lower socio-economic city in the Midwest not far from Chicago that was made up primarily of other people who look just like me. Growing up in a city where YOU are the majority is kind of insulating and not reflective of what the real world looks like, which is so much more diverse. My mom, who’s an educator and School Psychologist back in my home city, talked to me about racism and how the world views Black people by the time I was about seven years old. You know the conversation, the one that every Black family has with their children, “you cannot act like everybody else, you have to be 10 times better than the rest just to be viewed as equal” and “some people won’t like you just by virtue of your skin color”. At that time, I thought my mom was just being “her” and exaggerating because certainly I wouldn’t have to experience this, after all even though I didn’t grow up with the majority I shopped and ate in those neighborhoods. I didn’t have any problems when I spoke the universal language that everybody knows, “money.” It also didn’t make any sense that people could not like me for such an obvious trait that we all had, race/ethnicity. Of course I had been educated about Emmett Till and Rodney King, but that was back then, this type of thing didn’t happen now. I guess I had somehow in my pre-pubescent brain, couldn’t compute the fact that Jim Crow ended in 1964, the year before my mother was born which translated to the fact that most of the people from that era are still alive and well.

Keep in mind, in those times, the internet was not readily accessible as we had dial-up which was annoyingly slow so we never used it. Now fast-forward through my undergraduate years where I attended a Predominately White Institution (PWI), where that was the first time I had ever experienced blatant racism through the use of racial epithets, slurs, and microaggressions. You know, the microaggressions we read about “clutching your purse,” “staring at my tattoos when a great number of other people have them,” “following me around the store,” or “crossing the street to avoid me.”  I even had experiences of being pulled over by the police for no identifiable reason. It was also here that for the first time I had a truly diverse experience as I ate, lived, shopped, and learned with people from all different cultures, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, nationalities, etc.

In 2008, former President Barack Obama had won the election and was now the President of the United States. I thought to myself, surely that means we are equal right?! If any time was the time, it must be now! After all, I had lived to see the day my ancestors could only dream about. A day where there was a Black man in the White House. How wrong was I? Students at an esteemed Big 10 university were hanging black dolls from nooses in the library because presumably, some of them were upset that he had won. I was proud, so proud in fact I drove over 800 miles one way to see the inauguration first hand. I graduated my undergraduate program and made strides to move to the District of Columbia or “Chocolate City,” as I was told the local people called it, for law school. The legal system was no different, judging me and people who look like me by the color of their skin. Most of the time they thought we were paralegals until the words “lawyer,” “attorney,” or “esquire” came out of our mouths. Around this time the internet speed had greatly improved and so did social media. Social media was just now becoming the new mecca of how Millennials receive their news. Surprisingly to me, though I’m not sure why, this was the second time I experienced being called something other than my name. At this point in my life, I still did not understand the fascination with my skin color as if it somehow equates to my intelligence or my ability to do… well, anything, but I instead accepted the following premise as fact “some people really will see my skin color and not like me and I really will have to work harder and be better if I want to see 1/10th of the success of my majority peers.” My mom was right. Fast-forward again, here I am in my Masters of Clinical Mental Health program in Virginia. I had not known this at the time, but this move was transformational for my life and my overall understanding of people as well as why they do the things they do.

This was also a time in my life where I experienced a lot of personal growth, as should most counselors-in-training. My program was fine and in fact more diverse than most, as the majority of students were minorities, men, former armed service members, adult learners, etc. I had already known that Black and Latinx groups were disproportionately impacted by the judicial system and subsequently, or maybe even prior to entering the judicial system, they were disproportionately facing disparities in mental healthcare that begin for most as children through the school-to-prison pipeline in K-12. This, in fact, is what led me to go and pursue a masters in counseling. It was also around this time when lots of news was being posted on social media about Black people, or more specifically Black men, being murdered by those who have been sworn to protect and serve. But what I hadn’t realized, was the fact that they were protecting and serving for a judicial system that promotes the systemic oppression of people who look like me. The first murder of an unarmed Black person that I remember hearing about was Michael Brown, then shortly after Eric Gardner. In my mind those had to be isolated incidents, right?! No, they weren’t…look at Tamir Rice or the judicial system’s response to Trayvon Martin. It was true after all these years, that the system somehow viewed their skin as a weapon, otherwise, how could the people in those cases be found free from guilt despite the public outcry for justice?

During this time of perpetual turmoil, every time I turned on the news I saw a Black person somewhere being killed. I could find nothing they had in common minus the fact that they were Black and unarmed. It was also during this time that I found myself graduated from my masters program and providing therapy mostly in Prince George’s County, MD. I decided I wasn’t going to stand for this and I needed to do my part. That consisted of working toward my strengths and pushing for education and mental health reform for children in the K-12 arena. I realized I couldn’t do that on a large platform unless I had a “Ph.D.” behind my name. I went back to school to pursue a doctorate. I was tired of going to school, but not too tired to do my part to promote “equity” because “equality,” after all of these centuries of oppression and exclusionism, just wasn’t going to do. I began to realize that my own mental health was deteriorating, not because of school or work, but because I was tired, burnt out even, of turning on the news and seeing someone who could be my brother, my father, my husband, or my son be the next hashtag trending. I went to therapy to deal with these issues. We processed my feelings and talked a great while about what I was feeling, my past experiences, and the pressure I felt in just waking up knowing that the strides we have made as a nation are not enough and have not been enough to truly uphold the basic tenants which I believe all people have a right to: dignity, respect, fairness, and justice.

This therapist, also a Black woman, helped me to put things into perspective. She helped me to understand the following: 1) All I can do is what I will focus on. I am not responsible for changing the world nor can I put that pressure on myself for if I do, I won’t accomplish the things I do have control over. We are an advocacy profession, figure out what you want to focus on to do your part to advocate for those who are disenfranchised and marginalized and focus on that. 2) Turn off the news and social media. Compassion fatigue is real and as counselors whom most of us already exhibit a great deal of empathy, we need to find a time to unplug. 3) Self-care is necessary and required especially in times where we may feel out of control as some of you may be feeling right now. This may need to include seeing a therapist to process your feelings about today’s sociopolitical context. 4) You don’t and probably should consider NOT watching all of the videos posted to your social media where you see people dying. Vicarious trauma is real. You can’t help anybody if you are constantly being traumatized. 5) When you are with your clients, be with them in the moment in that space and time. Your clients deserve nothing less from you and in fact it is required ethically. If you can’t, don’t! If you’re impaired and can’t see your clients make sure you do what’s appropriate according to the ACA Code of Ethics to provide them with the quality care they need. 6) Most importantly… it’s okay not to be okay. You might be experiencing anger, burnout, sadness, anxiety, or a mix of all four. These are strange times. It’s okay to be a therapist who needs therapy. Therapy is for everybody!

For all of my non-Black readers, this article is for you too. Hopefully my story has shed some light on why we might be feeling or acting differently given today’s socio-political context. Please support us in these times and respect where we are in our own processing of these events. Please also support us out loud, in advocating for change. Remember that like the great-late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Equity amongst all people is everyone’s fight!

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