For an easy mental health boost, download this beautiful design, and color it in, letting yourself put all of your attention on it. See if it helps you to release some tension.
Image courtesy of counseling.org.
Systemic barriers, historical adversity and a lack of equitable mental health care for diverse communities are contributing factors to the inequities and challenges that BIPOC communities face related to mental health. July happens to be BIPOC Mental Health Awareness month, developed to highlight these challenges and to remove the stigma for mental health issues and care in Black and Brown communities.
Underrepresented, “minority”, disenfranchised and marginalized folks of color – or more fairly, BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, People of Color – have a spectrum of diverse experiences and mental health concerns that are often made worse by the systemic racism and racial injustice of the world we live in, contributing to the individual and collective trauma these communities suffer.
Some things that get in the way of treating People of Color mental health with dignity and compassion include:
- Racism, systemic and implicit bias, discrimination and lack of trust in healthcare
- Individual shame and sense of stigma, combined with societal stigmatization surrounding mental health vulnerability and treatment
- Lack of providers from diverse backgrounds represented in the mental health field, which contributes to a lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity in clinicians
- Culturally insensitive mental health systems, whose norms have not included People of Color, but have typically been based on white men, and perpetuated white supremacy thinking
- Language and communication barriers and not recognizing that even if one speaks the language, that doesn’t mean there is a respect for or cultural understanding and responsiveness
- Lack of acknowledgment of a person’s racial and ethnic identity and the unique experiences of oppression that the individual and community experience, that comes from racial trauma, systemic racism, and disregard for their lived experience
- Overlooking and dismissing one’s cultural context, which of course is related to values, practices, beliefs that contribute to a person’s unique identity and worldview
- Ignoring the impact of intergenerational trauma – the trauma of systemic racism and violence that gets passed down through generations – the pain of which impacts each generation in particular ways, and that BIPOC have suffered for centuries
- Not recognizing or welcoming the value of ancestral spiritual healing practices; or co-opting and commercializing them without honoring the original communities
- Western therapy often emphasizes individualism as the main goal, and is by nature Eurocentric and has caused harm to marginalized communities who are more group and family oriented
- In meditation or wellness healing, there’s often a reference to moving from darkness to light and “negative“ emotions (anger, fear, loss, depression) are often associated with Blackness, darkness, shadow side; and the positive emotions (happiness, joy, peace) are associated with lightness, whiteness, purity, highlighting the built-in negative associations and biases that are identified with skin color.
- Socio economic inequalities, including poverty, low or under-employment, legal and immigration status, housing, that disproportionately affect BIPOC, and contribute to a lack of access to quality health and mental health care.
WHAT ARE SOME CHALLENGES PEOPLE OF COLOR EXPERIENCE IN THEIR EFFORTS TO IMPROVE THEIR MENTAL HEALTH?
POC often are expected to be strong, resilient, can’t let their guard down ever; they have to be tough, macho, unfeeling. In many diverse communities, the expression of feelings, vulnerability is a sign of weakness and often this is magnified by a society at large that invisibles or stereotypes these communities of color around their emotional expression. And being seen as weak (by others, or by those within your community, or by yourself) is dangerous and feels like it invites threat.
Not seeing others who look like them in spaces of power, decision-making, leadership, wealth and privilege; combined with being “kept out of the room where it happens” or excluded, makes POC feel small, undeserving, unworthy, insignificant, alien, enraged, anxious, scared, unwelcome. A chronic sense of not belonging, or not being wanted and feeling devalued contributes to depression, anxiety, insecurity, fear and doubt.
I notice one of the first things I automatically do when I attend a conference or training is to scan the room (or zoom gallery), looking for other faces that look like mine, or listening for language of my home, wondering if I am safe there.
I notice that usually my body registers some initial level of insecurity when I enter new spaces that are all white (like a rock climbing venue I went to check out the other day) and it takes me a bit to move through the feeling of not belonging. If I’m not a therapist and having practiced mindful awareness of my feelings and body sensations, and learned to apply self compassion to that experience, then I am a regular Person of Color who gets piled on layers and layers of having been othered, excluded, harmed, made to feel I don’t belong, or discriminated against, and who’s mental health and well-being is overlooked and continually stressed.
I work with many BIPOC individuals and couples who work at various levels of corporations, academic institutions, community organizations, and who all feel additionally challenged and stressed by the micro aggressions and barriers their employers or coworkers put onto their already full plates. And of course, BIPOC have had to shoulder the double burden of not only experiencing the racism surrounding them, but having to educate white folks at the same time about the impact to their psyches and souls of that treatment.
Not being seen clearly for who you are, in ways that acknowledge your strengths, accepts your vulnerabilities, respects your differences, makes folks feel angry, resentful, oppressed. This powerless feeling creates rage – that can be directed outwardly or internally in the form of depression, self harm, shame. Explode or implode. Either way, it takes a toll on your physical and mental health.
In some BIPOC families, we have not learned healthy ways to take care of ourselves, nor had good models who handled the oppression/stress of their circumstances in self-caring ways…Or we’ve been told that self-care is selfish or weak, and that our primary concern should be our family, over and above ourselves. Or we’ve been told we have to work harder than anyone else in order to get half of what others get; or that we shouldn’t pursue our dreams – they ain’t gonna happen anyways; or cautioned into being small – don’t take up too much space; don’t rock the boat; don’t be selfish; don’t be a victim by focusing on what’s happened to you; don’t ask for help; be humble; don’t overshadow others; don’t count on anything good because it’s always going to get messed up or taken away from you – besides, who do you think you are anyways? You ain’t nothing… No one cares about what you think or how you feel…Yes, sometimes even our own families don’t recognize what we’re going through, or the impact of their harshness or neglectful actions on us.
I was often told “What will people think (if you act like that)?” “Shame on you.” “Don’t call attention to yourself”. I understood the importance of sacrificing my own wishes in order to defer to, obey or take care of someone else first.
Many POC have learned that feelings are not important, don’t want to be heard; just make you weak; don’t matter. Or no one is listening to them anyways, or that violence and yelling are the only way to express feelings – or have power or control over others. For many of us, our uncomfortable feelings are not to be felt, held, talked about in any way. We are often warned not go to therapy… Which only serves to impair our mental health and turn us against our own feelings.
Many of these messages coming from our own families have been harmful to our mental health and well-being as we’ve grown up, and we’ve taken these messages unskillfully into our intimate relationships, and with our own kids. What’s often overlooked and not understood is that our parents and ancestors have suffered their own traumas and discrimination, and not had access to compassionate mental health care that would help them to process or “decolonize” their own thinking, so they could pass on peaceful, generative parenting to their kids. Instead, they’ve passed on the intergenerational trauma, that originated in racist and inequitable practices and institutions of the world they grew up in.
As a young therapist, I was once told by a supervisor that my family was enmeshed and dependent. I experienced that as a negative generalization about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Latinos – cultures for whom family was so important. I was hurt, felt minimized and began to have self doubt about myself as a therapist, given his value judgment that his white patriarchal culture was superior to mine and whole parts of the world like me.
When I was being trained in the field of psychology, there were no Black or Asian or LatinX faces. There was one other Brown face – an Indian man from Guyana, a lovely man and friend, but who sadly died at a young age. I often wondered what these folks training me knew about treating my community of folks, often feeling that they (the trainers) were not my people. They didn’t get me and I didn’t get them. This is but a small experience of what many BIPOC face on a regular basis, the chronicity of which stresses out their mental well being.
SO HOW TO SHIFT TOWARD MORE HEALING IN THE MENTAL HEALTH OF BIPOC COMMUNITIES?
Of course, if the last year in particular has taught us anything about the mental health of POC, it’s that mental health is not a one size fits all situation and there definitely have been systemic inequities that have contributed to long standing oppression and traumatization of our most vulnerable populations. One positive outcome of the pandemic though, is increased conversations and awareness of the centrality of mental health, particularly of BIPOC. Everyone deserves access to good, compassionate, relevant and equitable mental health care.
Our mental health is connected to and quite central to our physical, social, spiritual, economic, relational wellbeing. And BIPOC mental health is good for us all. Or as Dr. Sará King, developer of the Science of Social Justice framework says, “Well being and social justice are the same thing. The effects of oppression and injustice manifest in our bodies and minds. Since trauma affects our physiology, psychology, mental health and relationships, understanding that the pain permeates so many parts of ourselves helps us heal.”
Community care has existed in BIPOC communities for generations. POC communities rely on collectivist beliefs that the well-being of individuals is intrinsically tied to the well-being of others, including the larger community.
In fact, we can learn a lot from our communities of color in terms of mental health care. Each community of color reflects great resiliency and courage to have faced centuries of oppression and adversity. Themes of reciprocity, cooperativeness, generosity, willingness to help family and community, along with more focus on being present in the moment, humility rather than always striving for MORE at the expense of others, are helpful and uplifting to POC. Gratitude for whatever they have, a willingness to share, offer hands-on help, no matter what they have are community-building practices that are very supportive to another’s mental health. Offering help and learning to ask for help are actually empowering, liberating actions to take. Offering inclusivity and a sense of welcome or belonging make it safe
Offering listening and healing circles; peer support; safe spaces for underrepresented to talk and share their experiences; the practices of ritual, ceremony, dance, music, hand craft and art, ancestral spiritual practices, faith communities; looking for the joy, yoga, martial arts, meditation, drumming, protecting the land and water and environment, cooking, gardening, connecting with nature; singing; visualizations, altar making; sharing grief, having agency over ones own mental healthcare, multi-generational households; kinship systems; storytelling, oral traditions; song, chant, are all powerful supports for an individual, family and community’s mental health.
Sometimes our voices feel small and alone. When we take the moment to listen in to ourselves, and listen deeply to our Brothers and Sisters of Color, we can find ways to connect, breathe together and build a sense of community and ease for one another, letting us know we are not alone in our struggle. North American indigenous wisdom says “When you heal something in yourself, you heal it for the seven generations before you and the seven generations after you.” Your ancestors and descendants are cheering you on.
And a deep bow to Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Sha’Carri Richardson, among other Olympians, who so courageously have faced the stigma and taboo of mental health in athletics, and who have come right out saying they are focused on their mental health and trying to protect it. Yay to them for being great role models for their communities (not only in their commitment to excellence in their sport, but also in the way they have embraced and honored their mental health needs), and for being inspirational to young women of color coming up, following in their footsteps.
Simone Biles acknowledged she needs to “work on her mindfulness” and wants to deal with the impact of all the pressure on her, as she feels she’s been carrying the weight of the world. She and Osaka share the message “It’s OK to not be OK; and it’s OK to ask for help with it.” YESS!! It’s COURAGEOUS, actually!
Talk about it with someone who can listen without judgement. Share. Unload your struggle and heartache. Protect and care for your mental health as if it were a sacred gift you didn’t want to mess up.
Thank you for reading all this. I’d love to hear any reflections you have. If you or some BIPOC person you care about is struggling with your mental health, please contact me for individual or couples’ therapy or check out my website for other helpful resources.