The Five Signs of a Great (Virtual) Black Therapist
Finding a Black therapist can be hard, and finding one during a pandemic is even harder.
by Imadé Nibokun
Finding a Black therapist can be hard, and finding one during a pandemic is even harder. The social distancing required by the COVID-19 outbreak means that on top of being Black- affirming and capable of supporting your mental health needs, therapists need to be accessible virtually.
After interviewing Black therapists and therapy users, I put together a list to help people on their search for the right virtual therapist during this pandemic and beyond. Here are some things to consider:
1. Professionalism and personal connection
“My therapist is 69 years old and has been in the game since the ’80s and really knows her stuff. She doesn’t just give advice but allows me to work through my issues and advises when necessary … It basically feels like [you’re having] a session with your granny that has a Ph.D.” -Rebecca Beyene in a survey created for this article
Your therapist should use their extensive knowledge to treat you in a way that feels connected to your culture, community, and core values. Personal connections don’t necessarily come from shared experiences. They can be developed through a therapist asking poignant questions, validating emotions, thoughtfully sharing opinions, and properly pushing a client towards a realization.
2. Understanding the structures of oppression that impact people of African descent while also recognizing and respecting your unique experiences.
“For Black and/or LGBTQ+ clients, a therapist’s [in]ability to hold space for the intensity of their reactions to oppression should be a critical deciding factor.” – Araya Baker, private practice therapist
A great therapist educates themselves on activism, social justice, and oppression long before you enter their office. According to Oakland based therapist Nia Hamilton-Ibu, LCSW, counselors should “have an understanding of power dynamics in the world but also in the [therapy] room.” A therapist should know their privilege and be mindful of power differentials/dynamics that are present in the therapist-client relationship.
For sex workers, Hamilton-Ibu advises that even before the first session, a therapist should demonstrate that they are supportive, respectful, and knowledgeable about working with sex workers. If you are initially unsure about disclosing your sex worker status, you can ask theoretical questions. Hamilton-Ibu stated that although you may not have any treatment needs related to your work, it is helpful if you feel that your whole person is respected and not stigmatized.
3. Virtual sessions match your technology, patience, and treatment type.
“A virtual therapist experience should feel similar or close to an office visit experience. A great virtual therapist will also be familiar with the ethics around telehealth and receive training in telehealth.” – Marline Francois-Madden, LCSW
Virtual therapy should have the flow of an in-person session with guidance and clear feedback that helps you navigate the limitations of virtual interactions. But not every therapist offering virtual sessions has the proper tech setup. An excellent practitioner who does wonders face-to-face may struggle to turn their video on. If your patience for tech hiccups is low, your virtual therapist shouldn’t be a luddite.
Your treatment should also be compatible with virtual therapy. For Hamilton-Ibu, they do not offer virtual EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This method helps a person process traumatic memories through directed eye movements. “It could possibly activate someone,” said Hamilton-Ibu, who prefers to be in the room to help re-ground clients during EMDR. For virtual therapy, she uses EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique aka Tapping) instead.
4. You are reaching your treatment goals.
“It’s important to review the treatment goals with the client to see how they are progressing in therapy.” – Marline Francois-Madden, LCSW
If you started therapy to alleviate the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic, there should be clear signs that your anxiety and your approach to anxiety improves as therapy progresses. But when you do all the homework, coping skills, and lifestyle changes your therapist recommends and still don’t see any enhancement to your mental health, this may indicate that you’re receiving the wrong treatment. You and your therapist should have a shared understanding of the best treatment modality that addresses the unique ways your mental health symptoms manifest.
5. You should know by the fourth session if this is the right therapist for you.
Most therapists interviewed for this article believe that by a month (or four sessions), there should be greater ease in speaking with your therapist and an assurance that they are providing a safe space as the right therapist for you. Since client assessments take about a month, according to Hamilton-Ibu, a therapist is able to properly evaluate a client’s identified needs, symptoms, and goals. Therapists are also likely to know if the client is a good fit for them.
For D.C. based psychologist Dr. Alicia Hodge, she looks for alignment with her past experience with a client’s issues, her style of therapy, and the client’s treatment goals. And for educator, writer, and therapist Araya Baker, they also read a client’s body language. “The signs that Black clients will stick around are the same ones demonstrated by folks of other backgrounds––relaxed posture, smiling, thanking me for my time––but also a subtle sense of sincere gratitude written all over their face.”
Imade (ee-MAH-day) is a writer and mental health advocate who founded Depressed While Black. She is a suicide attempt survivor who lives with clinical depression and borderline personality disorder. Imade first developed Depressed While Black as her 2015 Columbia University Non-Fiction Creative Writing MFA thesis. depressedwhile black.com has grown to an online community, an in-progress book, and numerous speaking appearances.