March 1, 2020

You deserve to heal: Going to therapy in West Michigan as a Person of Color

In Grand Rapids, where people of color make up less than half of the population, building community and fostering a sense of belonging isn’t always easy. To be the one and the only person of color in a room means having to navigate one's own emotions while trying to determine if the behavior of others is because of negative stereotypes or something else entirely. Balancing the two is an all too familiar dance for Steff Rosalez who has lived in the Kent County area for the last twelve years and has spent a lot of her life learning how to navigate spaces where she is the one and only.

For Steff, this work has required a lot of patience, emotional labor and practice in forgiving white people when they say insensitive things that they didn’t mean to say. Navigating this dance constantly has resulted in anxiety and a feeling of depression for most of Steff’s time in West Michigan.

Steff grew up in Michigan in a predominantly white community and it wasn’t until adulthood that she found herself in spaces where the people she interacted with on a regular basis looked like her. Although that brought her a sense of belonging, it wasn’t the cure to the anxiety and loneliness she experienced on a regular basis. 

Exploring Therapy

After a series of life changes and a bad breakup, she did not want to keep feeling the way that she did and decided to seek help. Not knowing where to start, she began to ask trusted friends and family what they did to take care of themselves. Many of them said “therapy," which led her to reach out to a therapist. The therapist was a white woman, who we will call Karen for the purpose of this blog. Karen, according to Steff, had a nice demeanor and knew how to ask questions. What Karen didn’t quite understand, Steff explains, was helping her process the ways racism affects her on a regular basis. 

“She helped me to self-reflect and think about how my own actions were impacting my life. But what she didn’t do was acknowledge that being a person of color in West Michigan was also affecting me: my opportunities, my self-worth and the ways other people saw me.”

In many of their sessions together, Karen would remind Steff of her own behaviors and ask Steff to consider whether perhaps she could be the one responsible for the way she felt, and that it wasn’t oppression, systems or cultural strain: if she was not participating in the cultural norms she should expect people to treat her differently. 

At the time, Steff didn’t really understand what was happening but recognized the same discomfort and sense of being deeply misunderstood when she was around Karen. Eventually, Steff stopped seeing Karen, but she was still experiencing anxiety and sadness.

“I thought maybe that’s just what therapy was like, and felt that it wasn’t ever going to really help me in the ways I needed.”

Time passed, and Steff was still struggling. Her friends and loved ones suggested therapy once again, but she did not want to go back. She confided in her sister about her first encounter with therapy and her sister reminded her that there were other therapists out there who might be better suited for her. She thought she wanted to try again, but didn’t know how to figure out just how to go about finding the right therapist. 

A Better Fit

Soon after that conversation, she attended the Sisters Who Lead conference, an affinity space intended only for women of color. There, she connected with a friend who shared her own struggles with mental health. She talked about what a “game changer” it was to find a therapist who knew how to talk about race and the specific issues that people of color deal with. She shared an online resource with Steff that helped her find a new therapist: this time a woman of color. 

“It was a complete 180. Instead of having to explain myself over and over about something I was experiencing, I was immediately understood and my lived experience was, and still, validated and supported.”

This new therapist told Steff she thought she was suffering from moral injury. Moral injury or moral fatigue, Steff explains, happens when a person recognizes what the right thing to do is, but is unable to do it because of policies, stereotypes or racism. Journalist Diane Silver describes it as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.” This made a lot of sense to Steff. 

At work, Steff is in a position where she advocates on behalf of working class Latinx, undocumented folks and people of color. Being in this role, although incredibly life giving for her, isn’t always easy. She’s confronted with the reality that many members of her community struggle making ends meet, have little or no access to economic opportunities and quality health care, and many struggle with navigating advocating for themselves and their families. 

What Therapists of Color are Saying

Rebecca Spann, a licensed therapist for eight years and mental health provider of color specializing in anxiety and depression, says this experience is not uncommon for her clients who are also people of color.

“Just being a person of color in America is quite an emotional journey because you have to go through identity formation. You must learn yourself, navigate family dynamics, educate oneself on our heritage and then at times have to incorporate that into spaces that haven't been intentional on recognizing that racial disparities still exist."

Spann explains that for people of color living in West Michigan, it means spending a lot of time trying to explain to others their identity and having to think twice whether their behavior will be perceived in a certain way because of their race.

“I am seeing clients of color come in having difficulty coping with everyday life and a hard time navigating working with others who may not understand some of the systemic issues that people of color endure. In some spaces, for a person of color, being able to be authentically who they are can be a struggle."

When Rebecca first moved back to Grand Rapids, she had a really hard time finding a therapist who was also a person of color—a fact, she says, was hard for her to reckon with since she had access to mental health resources that others do not. 

In West Michigan, Rebecca explains, the problem for people of color stems from being the one and only person of color in a space like a workplace or the classroom.

“When I first came to Grand Rapids I had to do a lot of research and a lot of intentional reaching out to people of color who are therapists just to find a clinician of color for myself.

Finding Your Fit

The solution for Rebecca was simple: it was creating a directory of mental health providers for and by people of color. She and fellow colleague and friend, Janee’ Beville, are the brains behind the idea.

“The directory will be made up of mental health providers of color to help someone go to one place to find a mental health care provider who looks like them and understands what it means to be a person of color in West Michigan.”

Although there are directories like Psychology Today and Therapy Den where a person searching for services can find therapists in their area, none of these are for and by people of color. 

“A regular person going for services on Psychology Today looking specifically for ‘Black Therapists’ will not necessarily be directed to us.” 

The directory is still in process, but Rebecca hopes to publish the resource sometime this year. In the meantime, if you are looking specifically for a therapist of color please do not hesitate to contact Rebecca Span. If you are a mental health provider of color you can connect with other providers like yourself through the “Mental Health Clinicians of Color in Grand Rapids” Facebook group

You deserve to heal, and often finding the right therapist of color is the best way to do that.

Written by Michelle Jokisch Polo

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