How Seattle Therapists Make Space for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

by Suhani Dalal

Since the start of the global pandemic, one Seattle therapist said that roughly 90% of her new clients are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), compared to before, when about 70% were white. 

“There are so many people coming into therapy for their first time — first in their family, first in their history,” said Asian American psychotherapist and codependency therapist Ivy Kwong. “I always tell them: ‘I’m so grateful you’re doing this work, it’s not easy, but it’s the most important work I believe you can do in this lifetime. The work you are doing [honors] your entire lineage because it will heal past and future generations.’” 

With COVID-19 severely impacting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, coupled with the increased visibility of institutionalized inequities and murder of Black individuals, the mental health of BIPOC is especially vulnerable in this moment. Intersectional therapists in the Seattle area are focusing on healing these communities, as more BIPOC are seeking therapy and counseling to navigate their identities in a country stained by systemic racism. 

“The therapeutic space is such an amazing space, especially for BIPOC communities right now because a lot of us don’t feel like we have a space where we can go and talk openly or have someone that understands the ins and outs of how oppression and racism impact our psyche, mental health, and wellbeing,” said Ashley McGirt, a licensed therapist specializing in racial trauma. 

McGirt started the Washington Therapy Fund back in June to eliminate the cost of therapy for Black clients and to help them cope with racialized trauma bred by the nation’s rampant police violence and anti-Blackness. 

Kwong is one of 32 clinicians committed to antiracist and trauma-informed therapy who are contracted through the Washington Therapy Fund, which is currently in the process of obtaining 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit charitable organization. Its last updated donation total on GoFundMe was over $77,000. 

Both Kwong and McGirt spoke of the ways in which therapy has been a white-dominated field and emphasized the need for re-educating therapists, especially those who are white, to address racism and practice intersectional therapy. 

Kwong has been a part of therapy groups with thousands of clinicians where she has heard the same comments from a number of white therapists. 

“[White therapists say], ‘We don’t feel comfortable talking about race — why do we have to talk about race? We are all human,’” Kwong said.

Kwong further stated that many therapists prefer not to “bring politics into a therapy session” and do not want to take a stance. 

Institutionalized racism clearly affects the mental health of BIPOC. According to the American Psychology Association, 67% of Black adults cite discrimination as a significant source of stress, and 78% of Black adults concur that being Black is difficult in today’s society. 

 Above images: Data via the American Psychology Association. Graph by Suhani Dalal.

“When People of Color are saying [instances of racism] are happening, a majority of white people will think we are exaggerating, acting like the victim, or seeking attention; they never [take] us seriously,” said Sherronda Jamerson, a mental health practitioner at Harborview Medical Center. 

Recognizing racism is necessary in therapy spaces, as it remains a source of much anguish for BIPOC, who should feel comfortable discussing how racism has impacted their lived experiences with their hired therapist. 

“If you have not done your own antiracism work and work around all these issues surrounding intersectionality, then you are going to bring that into the therapy room — at the risk of traumatizing your client,” Kwong said.

While the principles of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis date back to the late 19th century, McGirt stated that “it was not new to practice [talking], have healing circles, [or] look at the body and somatic practices,” as Indigenous communities had already incorporated those practices. 

It is crucial to also give agency to BIPOC social psychologists and practitioners, rather than continuing to amplify the same white thinkers who have controlled and influenced the therapy space for so long. 

“We all know Freud, Adler, Watson … I can go on and on and name you a list of white therapists, but do we know Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Dr. Joy DeGruy, [or] Dr. Beverly Tatum?” McGirt said. “We have to be really sure that in doing intersectional therapy [we] are learning the works of multicultural clinicians and not just the Freuds and the Erik Eriksons.” 

The Clarks were famous for their doll tests, which analyzed the harm caused by Black children thinking they were inferior — a pattern of thought that was the product of “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation.” They were also the first two Black recipients of a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University and worked to eliminate school segregation and racial biases in education. 

“When I went to grad school like 15 years ago, I had one semester of multicultural counseling and how to be culturally competent, which is such an arrogant term,” Kwong said. “[And], after that class, [those issues] were never talked about again.” 

Crediting and studying BIPOC psychologists and academics not only affects the dialogue surrounding racism during therapy sessions but also impacts how therapists guide clients’ healing processes, said Kwong. 

“The white wellness space is so focused on you, you, you, [or] self, self, self — fix you first, then you can check on others,” Kwong said. “Trauma that happened through relationships must be healed through relationships. Communal aid, communal healing, [and] communal care circles — this is how we heal.” 

Community-based healing looks at the collective system rather than the individual and seeks to address systemic issues that are at the forefront of mental health illnesses. This holistic approach recognizes the unique racial traumas of BIPOC. 

“[Intersectional therapy] looks like practicing therapy from an anti-oppressive psychotherapeutic lens,” McGirt said. “It looks like checking your biases [and] constantly working to be anti-racist. It looks like educating yourself on the cultures surrounding [you]. It looks like learning from multicultural clinicians.” 

A recent worldwide study by the World Health Organization found that approximately $1 trillion is lost in economic productivity because of depression and anxiety and that every $1 spent on mental health care could return $5. To sustain the racial justice movement, Kwong and McGirt echo other therapists in supporting an increase in government spending on mental health services and funds like the Washington Therapy Fund. 

Moreover, McGirt stated that insurance companies must pay therapists more, as therapists opt for privatized counseling due to the low reimbursement rate from insurance providers. This ultimately causes the lack of trauma-informed therapy for BIPOC. 

“I want to destigmatize therapy overall, but especially in communities of color, because there is this mistaken narrative that therapy is a white people thing or that therapy is for the wealthy. The reality is that it is really expensive — but it shouldn’t be that way,” McGirt said. “Therapy should be for all people.” 

Suhani Dalal is an Indian American journalist pursuing a dual degree in Environmental Science and Journalism at the University of Washington. Reporting primarily on marginalized communities of color, Suhani continuously seeks to amplify the voices of BIPOC who’ve historically been, and are at present, underrepresented in the newsroom.

Featured image by Victoria Pickering; used here under a CC license.

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