Why are the majority of therapists white?

5 Mins read

Hassan Patel, a 22-year-old Muslim student from Brighton, has been in and out of therapy for a few years trying to process the repressed trauma of his abusive father.

He saw a white male therapist for the first time when he was in college: “He would try to teach me ‘how to act’ instead of finding the source of my emotions and understanding me,” he tells me.

“He would also make Islamophobic comments like how I was sexist because I was raised in a Muslim household. I’ve had better therapists since then, but it’s safe to say I didn’t return to see him.”

Hassan decided it was time to move on and find a therapist who was a better match for him and who was also culturally competent.

“I realised I needed to work through the more deep-rooted trauma that had built up over the years. I also learnt that these came from intergenerational trauma and my specific multicultural upbringing.”

After working with his current therapist, who is also Muslim, Hassan says he feels like he can finally get the most out of therapy: “I don’t have to keep on articulating a cultural context to the things I would bring to sessions, as my therapist already understood me to a certain degree.”

In 2015, The British Psychological Society found that “around 88.2% of the clinical psychology workforce in England are of White ethnic origin.”

“I felt understood, validated and like I had found a safe space!”

This statistic does not match up with the fact that BAME groups had higher rates of mental health problems compared to white people.

For example, black men are more likely to have experienced a psychotic disorder than white men in recent years, and black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people. 

This disparity can be explained by institutional racism, and socioeconomic factors disproportionately experienced by BAME groups as we know that poverty has a detrimental effect on one’s mental health.

Derrick Hoard, a licensed marriage and family therapist says in a YouTube video: “The counselling and therapy profession is completely inundated with one type of person.”

But why is this an issue? For many People of Colour, seeing a white therapist may be an unsatisfactory experience because of their lack of cultural competency. 

Having a white therapist is not necessarily a barrier to effective therapy, although someone’s culture can “profoundly affect people’s ways of being, their behaviour, and their interpersonal relationships.” 

However, as a trained mental health professional who is empathetic and provides a safe space for clients, it is another matter to be understanding and aware of the inequalities that affect the lives of People of Colour, as well as having your own lived experiences of these inequalities.  

The effects of racism can also have a profound impact on mental health as race-based discrimination can make you question your identity and affect your self-confidence.

A 2015 meta-analysis found that “racism is twice as likely to affect mental health than physical health”. In the same study, BIPOC who reported experiences of racism also experienced mental health symptoms such as “depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal thoughts”. 

Black people also face some of the highest levels of systemic racism whether that be individual, systematic, or historical.

“I am constantly being stopped and searched by police just because I’m a young black man, I guess it’s just normal at this point,” says student William Abbasi. 

“Around 88.2% of the clinical psychology workforce in England are of White ethnic origin.”

The different levels of racism can also lead to racial trauma. Racial trauma refers to the race-based traumatic stress and trauma caused by “ethnic discrimination, racism and hate crimes”, Wizdom Powell, director of the University of Connecticut’s Health Disparities Institute, tells  CNBC’s Make It.

Trauma responses to racism may present itself as “hyper vigilance, increased depressive symptoms, prolonged anger and outbursts, recurring thoughts of the events, as well as physical reactions like headaches, chest pains and insomnia,” Powell says. 

Treatment of racial trauma in therapy may also be a hard topic for white therapists as they do not have that built-in understanding or full lived experiences of racism to be able to empathise and relate with others. This means that therapy sessions cannot reach maximum results for both the therapist and client.

Therapy clients tend to feel more comfortable around someone in the same ethnic group as them as they can empathise with you culturally and you don’t have to re-explain the ethnic lens you may live through to them, as there is already a level of mutual understanding for trust to be built on.

They are someone that can grasp certain cultural sensitivities and be aware of intergenerational trauma that a white therapist cannot entirely grasp.  

Another factor is the issue of racial identity which is unique to People of Colour. The ethnic identity a person has refers to a complex and multifaceted part of the development of an individual of colour, where they learn to identify with their values and culture and ultimately how they identify with their ethnic group.

A racial identity is another thing a white therapist cannot completely help clients with, however another PoC therapist can.

Illustrator Jamal Umair, who has a black therapist says: “As a black person myself, it just means I can fully be myself and don’t have to worry about being misunderstood because he is culturally competent,” he says. 

There is also often stigma in many BAME ethnic groups where therapy and mental health is still a taboo, or a general consensus of saying “just pray it away”.

“I’ve had better therapists since then, but it’s safe to say I didn’t return to see him.”

Some cultures also believe that you are “possessed” if you experience any mental health issue. This just adds to the many reasons why therapy isn’t as accessible to many minority groups and why there are even more barriers to effective treatment. 

Sravya Attaluri, a mental health activist who has a South Asian therapist shares her experience: “I was very nervous at first and scared that they would also try to put me in a box or I would be faced with all those qualities in South Asian culture that often trigger me. However, it was very pleasant, I felt understood, validated and like I had found a safe space!” 

The Black African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) is the UK’s largest independent organisation that is encouraging psychology to make the shift to become a more diverse field.

Its primary aims are to address the “inequality of access to appropriate psychological services for Black, African, South Asian and Caribbean people, which is a well-recognised reality”. 

The BAATN is also a useful organisation for helping match People of Colour to therapists with their psychological therapist directory.

Therapy can help with a wide range of racial trauma and cultural issues that may threaten one’s identity. Cultural counselling can help you realise the impacts of these issues and may help you cope with them.


Featured image by Mohamed-hassan via Pixabay CC.
Edited by Charlotte Griffin & Annika Loebig

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