Written by Tracy De, LCSW
Before I start to share my reflection from the panel discussion on racial inequality in mental health as a mental health professional of color, I would like to express my deep gratitude to all five panelists (Thyannda Mack; Worsham EL, LCSW; Dr. Fabrice R. Lubin, LCP; Dr. Daniel K. Phillip, LCP; Cicely Green), who demonstrated the power of showing up with authenticity and vulnerability. Their honest, genuine and insightful input gave me a strong sense of safety and belonging. I left the discussion feeling warm and hopeful that I can take what I learned from our panelists into my personal and professional relationships.
As I listened to the panel discussion and savored its rich content, I experienced a wide range of emotions. There was validation when Fabrice shared how his creation of For Real Therapy and Space is motivated by the repetitive experience of the absence of warmth, inclusivity, diversity and openness in his academic and professional life. There was curiosity when Cicely talked about her holistic approach to wellness. There was revelation and enlightenment when Daniel was discussing how racism and oppression were embedded in the mental health field from both the historical and contemporary context. There was empathy when Thyannda mentioned how institutions she worked with only focused on getting past the pain, rather witnessing and sitting with the pain. There was amazement when learning about Worsham El’s journey of how she came to terms with her identities.
The discussion was not just an education to me, but also an experiential journey of validation, safety, belongingness, self-investigation, re-examination, self-challenge and growth. Here are my takeaways.
Engaging in Self-investigation
Both Fabrice and Thyannda observed in their practice how people dissociate from or channel their discomfort outwardly to racialized communities when it comes to anything race-related. All panelists pointed out the importance of doing the internal work and encouraged us to start from within. That means to be curious about our own stories and identities. That means to understand our comforts and discomforts. That means to engage with our joys and also pains.
HOW HAVE I COME TO THINK THE WAY I THINK AND TO KNOW THE WAY I KNOW?
Systemic and institutionalized racism does its non-stop conditioning work, shaping our frameworks of thinking and understanding. As a racialized individual who is subjected to discrimination, the intersection of my backgrounds, cultures and identities are not immune from this sort of conditioning. As an immigrant who moved to this country at a young age pursuing an education, I am privileged with resources and support that the majority of my peers back home wouldn’t dream to have. In the meantime, I am also the product of a euro-centric education where non-white intellects and achievements were rarely mentioned. I have internalized the euro-centric system that shows up in my clinical work. There is not a clear boundary that distinguishes the part of me that was hurt and also the part of me that is perpetuating the cycle of racism. This is just one example among the complex intersection of between my stories of being on the both ends of the spectrum of oppression.
The conversation around engaging in self-investigation helps me explore the complexity of how I become who I am with curiosity and compassion. Understanding the interaction among opposing aspects of my identities not only highlights the necessity of self-investigation, but also normalizes the process. The reason for engaging in culturally-sensitive self-investigation is not so that we can be free of guilt or shame. It is because the formation and development of our identities and value systems are dynamic. In order to understand anything with such complexity, we need to engage in ongoing self-investigation.
COMPARTMENTALIZATION OF IDENTITIES
When the group was discussing how racial inequality shows up in different levels of clinical work, Daniel commented on how therapists of BIPOC identifies are forced to compartmentalize their identities in professional settings, because the euro-centric system makes the rule on what is professionalism. Daniel articulately put into words the unspoken experience I have had for so long, and that gave me a sense of liberation. His comment also reminds me of what I learned from Thyannda’s identity workshop about the salient identity, one that comes into play in specific situations. I realized that the consistent factor that impacts how I show my salient identity in different contexts is always the acceptance by a euro-centric standard. That explains why I try to hide my accent in job interviews and why I feel the urge to inform upper middle class white clients that I have two master degrees, because I am so afraid that my accent and my immigrant background will label me as incompetent in their eyes. That also explains why I feel pressured to speak out more in professional training, because I know being a quiet thinker may be deemed as not being involved.
Many of us have to operate under a rigid standard in order to be included in the arena. Many of us have to hide and disguise parts of our core identities, so that we can find acceptance more easily. Many of us have to live a personal or professional life that does not feel fully authentic because the price of being our full complex selves is too high.
The compartmentalization of identities feels unconscious for me most of the time. Daniel’s words helped me to engage in a self-investigation process to figure out how I internalized that the message of “I am not enough” under the euro-centric standard, and how the process of compartmentalization shows up in my clinical work. What kind of power dynamic shifts my salient identity? In what ways have I participated in imposing the compartmentalization of others’ identities? I want to invite fellow therapists and colleagues to engage in self-investigation with me and to sit with the potential uncomfortable answers that possibly don’t fit with the euro-centric standard of good therapy, while resisting the urge to fix.
Community Healing and Community Learning
Fabrice and Daniel highlighted the healing power of engaging with communities and learning from communities. Fabrice talked about how he listened to organic community-suggested content as the base for therapeutic interventions. Instead of making the decision that yoga will be therapeutic for his group, Fabrice tuned in to the community’s wisdom and facilitated a trauma-informed make-up art group. I was so touched by the beautiful story Fabrice shared and also wondered about the process of his self-investigation that allowed him not to presume the current trendy therapeutic approach would fit everyone. Daniel also touched on the importance of learning from communities and from members of the community that are not “CEU-certified” or hold the so called “expert” positions in order to truly experience and understand culturally-sensitive self investigation.
I am inspired to think about the emphasis of self-regulation in the current therapy world. It is a goal that can be easily found in treatment plans for both children and adults. I fully agree with the importance of self-regulation in one’s mental health and overall wellness. It becomes interesting to me to wonder why the idea of co-regulation is often left out after early childhood. How much of it has to do with the positive value of independence in the mainstream culture and the pathologizing connotation with dependency? From an evolutionary standpoint, humans become the dominant species because we are social and we depend on each other. From an attachment theory standpoint, our life starts with co-regulation with primary caregivers. I wonder what are some clinical implications resulting from the culture started to expect us not to depend on anyone, but ourselves?
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Thyannda Mack, Founder of Inclusive Resolutions LLC
Thyannda is the founder of Inclusive Resolutions LLC where she helps organizations and individuals move toward resolution after incidents or disputes involving race, gender identity, sex, religious/spiritual beliefs, sexual orientation, age, ability differences, ethnicity, nationality, or socioeconomic status. Her experiences as an attorney, educator, trauma survivor, and parent has made her adept at responding to and resolving identity-related incidents. She has 15+ years of experience in community engagement, facilitation, conflict resolution, and programming.
Worsham El, LCSW, Founder of Lotus Trauma Care
Worsham El is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) passionate about educating professionals and caregivers on the impact of childhood trauma, complex trauma, and historical trauma. She is the co-Founder and CEO of Lotus Trauma Care, LLC, your South Side Chicago Trauma providers, and a Field Consultant for graduate students at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. She has designed and facilitated workshops for the University of Chicago, Gary Comer Youth Center, Loyola University, and several other organizations.
Dr. Fabrice R. Lubin, Founder of For Real Spaces
A first-generation Haitian immigrant, published poet, father, and creative spirit, Dr. Fabrice Robert Lubin is an engaging therapist respecting the struggle of change and skillfully seeking to create unique opportunities. Fabrice is the designer, creator, and founder of For Real Spaces, a multi-purpose office venue committed to addressing mental health concerns on both the individual and community levels. With an emphasis on valuing access and therefore hope to lower barriers (financial, professional, personal, or otherwise) that impede the seeking of mental health services. For Real Spaces targets a diverse group of people searching for comprehensive approaches to therapy and ways to discuss mental health not as an individual problem, but as a communal one.
Websites: www.forrealtherapy.com / www.forrealspaces.com
Dr. Daniel K. Phillip, Founder of Together+Through
Dr. Daniel K. Phillip (he, him, his) is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Founder of Together+Through, an organization that centers those at the margins by providing psychotherapy and consultation services that are collaborative, culturally responsive and personalized. As a psychologist with visible and invisible marginalized identities, Daniel’s personal and professional opportunities have shaped his therapy style, which incorporates anti-oppressive, cognitive behavioral, emotion-focused, and insight-oriented approaches.
Cicely Green, Mental Health Counselor, Holistic Health Coach
Cicely is mental health counselor, endurance runner, yoga + pilates teacher, and aerialist who seeks to increase representation in these spaces. Cicely’s passion is to create safe and healing spaces for people of color, women, LGBTQ, immigrants, emerging adults, youth, and athletes. She believes in focusing on one’s mind as well as body to promote holistic healing. Most recently, Cicely started the Chicago Black Therapist Directory as a resource to improve visibility and access to black mental health professionals in Chicago.