FINDING A THERAPIST AS A PERSON OF COLOR
By Dr. Jenny Wang
Crucial questions to ask that assess if a therapist is right for you
Long before I became a psychologist, the idea of mental health as an Asian American was fraught with complexity. For many cultures, the very idea of admitting that we have mental struggles goes against every fiber of our being. The stigma of having a “mental illness” is something that is pathologized and shunned. Many suffer in silence until they are met with a severe mental health crisis. They could end up requiring hospitalization or even worse, a welfare check from the police that does not always end well.
Mistrust and fear
For Asian Americans and individuals of color, the field of psychology may prompt feelings of mistrust and fear. These fears and the severe stigmas associated with mental healthcare are why Asian Americans are 2-3 times less likely to pursue mental health services than the general population. I have heard many times from older Asian Americans, “Why would you tell all your secrets to someone you don’t even know? Why can’t you just talk to your family and friends?”
The fear of shame associated with admitting vulnerability is extremely palpable in some cultures. Now as a practicing psychologist and Asian American, I believe that mental healthcare for our community is crucial for our relationships, parenting, overall health, and even our advocacy for all marginalized people. If we do not seek mental healthcare to develop better coping skills, understand our emotions more effectively, and heal from our past pain and trauma, we are at risk for living reactive and dissatisfied lives where we constantly wonder, “Will this ever get better?”
Finding a culturally relevant therapist
So how do you find a therapist who understands you as a person of color or Asian American? These are the factors I encourage friends, clients, and others to consider when looking for a therapist.
The cost of therapy ranges from under $100 to over $200 depending on the level of training, experience, and whether they accept insurance. First, consider how much financial investment works for you so you can begin your search. I always tell clients that the finances of therapy should not add to their stress levels—otherwise, therapy may be counterproductive. Many therapists take insurance, which can reduce the burden of cost. While others are out of network, they can offer paperwork to submit for some insurance reimbursement. Consider all of your options if you have behavioral health benefits in your insurance plan.
For many mental health professionals, we are only able to see clients who reside in the states where we are licensed. If they are a licensed professional, they should provide their licensure number that you can verify with the licensing board. For example, my psychologist license would be verified through the Texas State Behavioral Health Executive Council. The second step would be to find a provider who is licensed to practice in your state and fits your financial needs.
Many mental health professionals have specializations or niches in which they serve. Some may have additional training in certain clinical disorders like eating disorders or others may focus on a certain population of people. All of these are often available on their practice websites. It is important that you find a clinician who is appropriately trained to work with the issues that you hope to address in therapy.
Cultural reverence and skill
This is a crucial element for people of color or other marginalized identities (differing abilities, neurodiversity, LGBTQ+, etc). One of the most important factors for therapy is a felt sense of safety with your therapist. However, if you are a person of color and your therapist does not understand or acknowledge the impact of racism on your mental health, this may become a barrier in their work with you. It is crucial—especially as a person of color—that we seek out mental health providers who are aware of cultural nuances, systemic racism, and have done the work of examining their own internal biases that might impact therapy. As a therapist, we must also be keenly aware of the possible privilege and power dynamics that might impact our therapeutic relationships with clients.
How does one assess whether a person has cultural reverence and skill? By asking. I encourage potential clients to request a free initial phone consultation. During this conversation, I always welcome my clients to ask any questions that they would like. Some questions that might assess cultural skills are:
- Can you explain how you see the impact of racism on mental health?
- What type of work have you completed to understand your own internal biases? How do you keep those in check during therapy?
- Do you have experience working with Asian Americans?
- Do you understand the unique mental health struggles of trans people? If not, how do you address this professionally in your work?
Some therapists who are a perfect fit on all of the parameters mentioned above may still not be a good fit for you. This is because every therapist has a different style and approach to therapy. If you begin therapy and find after a few sessions that you are uncomfortable or feel unsafe or unheard, it is completely appropriate to ask for referrals or to change therapists. I always tell new clients, therapy is for you. Once there is no more added value, you need to deeply consider whether to continue or if you should graduate from therapy. How you feel when you are with your therapist is extremely important and helps to facilitate healing and growth. Trust your gut.
It’s your journey
I hope this offers a fairly simple approach to finding a therapist and dispels some of the myths associated with mental healthcare. At the end of the day, therapy is about being in relationship with someone who is nonjudgmental, empathic, and is willing to walk this journey with you through all of the ups and downs. Along the way, they may offer you some skills to learn and to practice. Ultimately where you end up in your journey is entirely up to you.