Four Ways People of Color Can Foster Mental Health and Practice Restorative Healing

A resource guide to help people of color destigmatize mental health issues, find culturally competent therapists, and practice self-care.

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The strong, Black woman. The Asian “model minority.” “¡No soy loco!” These tropes, expressions, and labels are often used to demonstrate (and even celebrate) the “resiliency” of people of color. But it’s a trap. These stereotypes may seem empowering, but beneath the surface, they are damaging. By denying our humanity, we downplay the mental-health effects of racial trauma. We perpetuate the stigma of mental illness in our communities. And we ignore our own pain and suffering.

Mental illness does not discriminate on the basis of identity or background. Why, then, are people of color often silenced, ignored, and excluded from the discussion? White-centricism not only takes over the narrative of mental health, it consumes media representation, access to services/resources, and even community support. People of color aren’t visible in this conversation, and that alone impacts our mental health by making it harder for us to believe and identify our struggles.

People of color aren’t visible in this conversation, and that alone impacts our mental health by making it harder for us to believe and identify our struggles.

And people of color not only feel left out, we get left out.

Racial minorities in the U.S. are less likely overall to access mental health services for reasons including cultural and socioeconomic barriers. When we do receive care, it is often poorer quality. Access to culturally competent care is also an obstacle for communities of color. For example, only 5% of psychologists are African Americans. The history of racism in mental health care is well-documented, and even today, there is still clear bias against people of color.

From diagnostic disparities to pathologizing and gaslighting those suffering from racial trauma, white mental health practitioners have little sense of cultural competency in serving people of color and can reinforce stigma and induce more harm. When confronted by their lack of knowledge, white therapists often retraumatize us with their own white fragility and rage.

Meanwhile, the social impact is devastating. Our communities are in crisis. People of color are disproportionately more likely to experience race-based trauma and PTSD, with Native Americans experiencing significantly higher rates. Asian-American women have the second highest suicide rate in the country. Islamophobia has taken a mental and physical toll on Muslim Americans with nearly one-fourth suffering from depression. Both Black and Latinx people face higher rates of depression than white people.

But despite the obstacles we face, we can heal and our communities can thrive. Our survival and continued existence is a tribute to our strength and resilience. Loving ourselves in the process is radical resistance. But we do not have to give from an empty cup or suffer in silence. Here are four important ways people of color can foster mental health and practice restorative healing.

Four Ways People of Color Can Foster Mental Health and Practice Restorative Healing

1. De-stigmatize mental health.

Normalize mental health as a social justice issue by breaking down barriers to seeking help. Share your narrative as an act of “self-love, liberation and reclamation,” an inspiration to others that can potentially save lives. Use the following resources to open awareness and dialogue:

  • Take the Stigma Free Pledge and be conscious of words and language that stigmatize mental illness.
  • Watch this 3-minute video by writer and activist Imade Nibokun, about depression, the intersection of mental health and social justice, and how the suicide of MarShawn McCarrel was a catalyst for addressing activist self-care.
  • Visit the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project created by Dior Vargas, a Latina feminist mental health care activist. Consider submitting your photo to be included in the project.
  • Read this series that addresses the stigma of mental health in young Asian Americans, “model minority” expectations, and how practitioners, parents, peers, and schools can help break down barriers.
  • Read the educational fact sheets from Brother, You’re on My Mind Toolkit and use their tips and resources for advocacy, community outreach, events, and partnerships for African-American communities.
  • Keep in mind that the seemingly strongest among us are sometimes the most at risk. Especially those in activist spaces can use uplifting and room for just being and being vulnerable. Reach out, check in, share the load.

2. Seek culturally competent mental health services.

Follow these 3 tips to finding mental health care from My Brown Box. Look at recommendations from the National Alliance on Mental Illness on how to find a culturally competent therapist for the specific needs of African American and Latinx people. Check out these resources and directories of practitioners of color:

3. Practice self-care

Rejuvenate using these resources specifically tailored for people of color. Self-care and self-love are crucial and radical acts of resistance.

4. Endorse multicultural and social justice counseling competencies.

De-center white models of mental health and treatment. Seek out, research, and listen to sources of knowledge from marginalized, underserved, and neglected communities about mental health beliefs, healing, and community needs.

  • Read this document from the presentation Culturally-Responsive Counseling in the Era of Community-Wide Racial Stress, review and select racially based stress assessment tools found on page 20, and read additional resources for interventions on page 25.
  • If you are a white mental health professional, work to make your practice anti-racist. This issue from Mental Health News on “The Impact of Race and Racism on Mental Health Clients, Practitioners, Organizations, and Delivery Systems” offers insights and tips. Take this Cultural Competence Self-Assessment Questionnaire found in Appendix A and evaluate what areas in your practice can use some remediation. Explore the abundance of resources from the National Center for Cultural Competence for mental health care providers and programs to deliver culturally and linguistically competent services. Get familiar with these endorsed competencies.
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