Project Resilience: Culturally Responsive Therapy
It’s no secret Utah is a majority white state. That majority holds true for mental health workers as well, and it’s part of what makes culturally responsive therapy important.
“Sometimes if you have an experience with oppression, it's easier to talk with someone else who has an experience of oppression because you are kind of talking the same language," said LaShawn Williams, a licensed therapist and social worker in Utah. She’s also a co-founder of The Black Clinicians, a resource for connecting people with black medical and mental health professionals.
Williams said culturally responsive therapy is about therapists doing the work to understand their clients and to enable them to advocate for themselves.
“When we think about being culturally sensitive, we're talking about having these therapists that do not have necessarily a lived racialized experience,” Williams said. “If you can't access a black therapists and you have to access a non-black therapist, whether it's a non-black person of color or a white person, it's being empowered to say, do you have a black therapist that you can consult with as you work with me, because you will need support to help understand my lived experiences. I may not have the energy to do the explaining. But here we are.”
Williams said a therapist with an identity similar to the client can be an important tool in the process. As a social worker, Williams has had experiences where her identity has been a source of connection for her clients.
“I was taking over a case from a colleague, my colleague was white, I am not. The client was a black mom with a sensory needy son. And when I walked into the house to meet her, she ran to me and said, 'Oh, thank God, thank God, I'm so glad to have a black social worker,'” Williams said.
Nichelle O’Saurus has sought therapy to talk about her racial identity and wants to talk to a therapist of color. O’Saurus was my direct supervisor at a former job.
“I’m half white. So, I benefit from being half white in ways that are hard for me to reconcile with the half of me that is not white. And I would love to be able to talk to somebody about that," O'Saurus said.
O’Saurus said when she reached out to a counseling center within her insurance network, the center didn’t have any therapists of color on staff.
“The receptionist made the assumption that I was trans, which was awkward. And then, when I corrected her and I said, No, it's about my racial identity. She said, 'Oh, we don't have any of those.'" O'Saurus said.
O’Saurus said the receptionist was uncomfortable talking about the absence of any therapists of color, instead unnecessarily explaining hiring practices.
“My struggles are about belonging and feeling pulled between and apart from two groups and figuring out where I fit," O'Saurus said. "And I think that there are lots of great therapists who would try really hard. And I don't think therapists who are white would intentionally say things that would be wrong or hurtful. I think they'll be trying their best.”
When therapists don’t fully understand their clients’ experiences, they may unintentionally cause harm in what is supposed to be a place of healing.
La Shawn Williams emphasizes connection in culturally responsive therapy and said it’s this connection that can help therapists and clients with different experiences work through uncomfortable moments.
“Understanding that therapy is a partnership process to move with you to journey with you, along the stages of your life that create disconnection either by natural occurrence or through systemic or structural oppressions, therapy is helpful,” Williams said. “But if you're trying to culturally connect, connections break. There's power and circling back and saying, you know what, I think I may have messed that up. Can we talk about it?”
Because of Utah’s population is majority white, it’s possible that many black and other racial minority Utahns will only have access to white therapists. Williams said a key part of culturally responsive therapy is for white therapists to understand the social and historical context behind a majority and minority dynamic.
“If you haven't done your work around what it what you bring with you, as a social worker, as a therapist into a community," Williams said, "if you don't know what enters the room with you, you're liable to do unconscious harm and unconscious damage.”
Williams said it’s unlikely for someone to find one therapist who understands every aspect of their identity.
“What's the most important thing to do is to find the place where you feel seen where you feel like okay,” she said. “I have these three major issues. I don't have to translate two of them. But I'm willing to translate this one issue.”
Resources for support:
The Black Clinicians is a collective of black medical and mental health professionals. It connects black residents to black professionals.
Empath Healing and Wellness is a counseling center founded by Melanie D. Davis, a co-founder of the Black Clinicians.
Latino Behavioral Services is a counseling center specializing in mental health services for the Latino population in Utah.
Open Path Collective is an online resource for finding affordable therapists in your area.
Child and Family Empowerment Services is a counseling center specializing in culturally responsive and sensitive therapy. Staff includes many bilingual speakers, including Spanish-, Portuguese-, Tongan- and Samoan-speaking counselors.
Besides being an expert in culturally responsive therapy, Dr. LaShawn Williams is a practicing counselor.