Mental health experts share how they process racism and brutality, along with the self-care methods helping them in this moment.
By Nicole Pajer
The current protests against racism, discrimination and police brutality have ignited an array of emotions that require processing ― for many people, with a professional. Black therapists find themselves dealing with these issues twofold. Not only are they fielding discussions about race with their clients, but they’re also sorting through their feelings on a personal level.
“Many Black therapists are experiencing primary and secondary racial trauma that’s been resurfacing, on top of the personal and professional challenges of COVID-19,” said Carla Smith, an Atlanta-based therapist and a supervisor for Motivo, a platform that connects therapists with clinical supervisors.
Racial trauma can lead to some major mental health complications if left unaddressed, which is why it’s vital to have techniques to help manage it. Here’s how Black therapists are personally dealing with their own experiences right now:
1. Taking breaks from the news
Daja Mayner, a licensed clinical social worker at MindPath Care Centers in North Carolina, chooses to restrict the news she takes in.
“I limit my consumption of media content related to the racial trauma, such as videos depicting police brutality toward Black Americans or interviews/stories normalizing this type of violence and its implications,” she explained.
While staying informed is important, Mayner said that information overload can be detrimental to her mental health. She allows herself one hour per day to engage with news media, “often mandating 15-30 minutes of that be local news to remind myself to expand my perspective and cultivate balance.”
“This strict measurable limit works for me because it provides clear objective boundaries,” she added.
2. Choosing when and when not to share personal experiences
Dana E. Crawford, a pediatric psychologist at Montefiore Health System in New York, said people often ask for her personal and professional opinions about racism.
“To have meaningful and authentic conversation, I often have to reveal my trauma,” she said, but sharing can be exhausting.
Crawford has learned to set boundaries on what personal information she’ll divulge. “You can decide when to share, where and how,” she said.
3. Practicing mindfulness and self-awareness
“One of my favorite methods of dealing with these issues personally is to work on my mindfulness,” said Howard Pratt, a psychiatrist at Community Health of South Florida Inc. “I try to be self-aware and not lose myself by the views of others.”
Pratt said he knows that he can’t control whether he will encounter racism, but he can control how he prepares himself for those encounters. “That means accepting that they will come and having the tools to navigate those instances and preserve myself,” he said.
In doing this, Pratt said he turns to his natural competitiveness as a former athlete. “There is a game I’m already looking to win and that game is to turn the tables on the situation, if I can find a way, and turn it into a teachable moment, with the big win of self-preservation and enlightenment,” he said. “This is more of a mental game of chess and being willing to accept that the unpleasant encounter can come at any moment.”
4. Leaning on a support system (including therapists)
“Therapists have therapists,” said Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist in Pennsylvania. “We experience the same support, empathy and safe space we provide for you.”
Boateng added that weekly visits to a therapist keep her and her colleagues mentally strong. She also said she often turns to her own support system, whether that be calling a friend, talking with a family member or turning to a virtual community dedicated to women of color.
5. Using calming apps
“As a Black male, it is challenging witnessing what is happening right now. When I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I write down my thoughts in the note section of my phone,” said Arron Muller, a licensed social worker with Life Matters Psychological Services in Valley Stream, New York.
He also uses calming apps on his smartphone and finds that meditation, taking deep breaths and focusing on what he can do to make a change helps.
“Being that I am a therapist, using my platform to encourage and support Black men and women to become aware of their emotional wellness during this time is something that I can do,” he said. “Providing education on how racial trauma can affect their mental wellness has helped me by doing my part in this fight. I find redirecting my anxiety into something productive.”
6. Remembering that it’s OK to feel a spectrum of emotions
“How I personally deal with the current racial trauma we are experiencing is to hold space for myself to feel my feelings,” said Victoria Grande, a licensed mental health counselor and life coach in Babylon, New York.
Grande said this means she’s come to understand the value of allowing intense emotions to come out and processing them within a safe environment that she has created for herself.
“I am compassionate and understanding that it is OK not to be OK, and I do not always have to be the strong one. I can allow myself to be vulnerable and, at the same time, nurture my wellbeing,” she explained.
7. Writing it out
Journaling is a strategy that Charmain F. Jackman, a licensed psychologist in Massachusetts and the founder of InnoPsych Inc., recommends to clients and that she’s been finding solace in lately, too.
“The recent racial tension has awakened my need to express myself in words. I started by writing ‘Letter to the White Parents of my Children’s Friends,’ followed by a piece helping parents talk to their children about racism,” she ‘said.’
Then Jackman wrote a blog post to guide white therapists on how to challenge clients who use bigoted language in therapy sessions.
“This writing process has been cathartic and has allowed me to manage the tension I am feeling as I lead conversations about racism, racial trauma, and allyship in my professional work as a consultant on these topics,” she said.
8. Making a point to find and celebrate joy
“I’ve learned that experiencing joy in times of despair is necessary,” said Aaliyah Nurideen, a licensed psychiatric social worker and community mental health therapist in New Jersey.
She said some people may feel guilty for laughing or making jokes in light of what is going on, “but it is a way of surviving the trauma and self-preservation.”
“So I take a break and indulge in guilt-free moments to laugh and experience joy and happiness however I can get it ― whether that is listening to a great playlist, binge-watching television or reading a captivating book,” she added.
9. Scheduling time to do nothing
George James, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, enjoys helping people and creating space to have conversations, even challenging conversations about racial trauma and injustice.
“But after tough weeks and multiple sessions, I know that I am experiencing my own symptoms of racial trauma when I feel emotionally and physically drained and I start to look forward to ending my sessions and look forward to when I am off the clock,” he said. “What I do to get through those moments is to make sure I make time to do nothing, to not be a therapist, to just chill, relax, enjoy my family, sleep, and either catch up on a show or play a video game.”
10. Practicing self-compassion
Nakia Hamlett, a psychologist and professor at Connecticut College, said the key to alleviating emotional distress is sometimes just letting yourself off the hook.
“We often compare ourselves to others and internalize messages that make it difficult to be compassionate and kind to ourselves,” she said.
Anxiety and depression can be triggered or exacerbated by trying to be perfect and competent, Hamlett added. Learning to accept the normal emotional vacillations of life is critical to improving mood.
“Life is increasingly stressful for all of us, especially right now. More than ever, we must make self-care and radical self-empathy the most important aspect of our lives,” she said.
11. Celebrating the change that’s happening
“When I feel overwhelmed by racism, I remind myself of the good that is happening in the world right now,” said Lateefah K.A. Watford, chief of behavioral health services at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta. “I know there are a lot of jokes and memes about how awful 2020 has been, and it has been a bumpy ride. But I have to be honest ― I am happy to see firsthand the shift in consciousness that is underway.”
Watford is excited to see how diverse the movement is and how progress has been made in such a short time. She channels those emotions into optimism about the future.
“I am excited to be living in this historic time. I am optimistic about what’s next,” she said. “To really appreciate this historic moment in time, it is important that I remain mindful and grounded in the present while optimistically looking forward to what’s next.”
12. Recognizing the need for self-care under pressure
“I am one Black person. While I recognize that I have professional expertise, I do not represent all Black experiences,” Crawford said.
She stressed that she has come to realize that she is not responsible for being the perfect representative of Blackness and she reminds herself that she is a human with strengths, weaknesses and needs.
“I do not have to do it all,” Crawford said. “When I am tired, I sleep. In a world which has spaces that oppress Black bodies, it is a revolutionary act for me to take care of me. I do not have to be a superhero and do it all.”