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Racial Harm and Mental Health (featured article)


February 26, 2021 Out of Session: Lerecia Williams on How Racial Harm Impacts Mental Health By: Sarah Mortimer Experiencing racism impacts your mental health. But finding the right therapist could help.

Out of Session is a series where we speak with counsellors about critical mental health topics, trends and tools for well-being and growth.

This week, we spoke with Lerecia Williams, a Registered Social Worker and Inkblot counsellor based in Toronto, Ontario. With a Masters of Social Work and a background in family services, Williams has extensive experience offering trauma-informed therapy to clients who have experienced childhood trauma, toxic and abusive relationships and racial harm. In her work, she is astutely aware of the impact of racism on one’s mental health and works closely with her clients to help them examine how their own behaviours and patterns have been shaped by their experiences with racism, and their ethno-racial and cultural identities.

Williams spoke to us about her journey as a counsellor, the impact of anti-black racism on one’s mental health and why having more black representation among therapists is essential for improving care.

What drew you to working in the mental health field?

Lerecia Williams (LW): My mother struggled with depression pretty much all of my childhood. At the time, I didn’t know that what she was experiencing was depression. I knew it was sadness and I recall her seeking out therapy and reading self-help books. I also struggled with feelings of depression as a child, but I didn’t have a name for it. It wasn’t until I did my first year of undergrad psychology when I started learning that depression was the name I could put to this thing. Once I started looking for help, however, I realized there seemed to be a lack of available resources in terms of counsellors who looked like me. I couldn’t find people who were able to connect to my lived experiences or the way I show up and was treated in this world, as a result of the colour of my skin. I went into the mental health field because I wanted to be able to provide that representation and connect with clients from that place of lived experience.

"Racial harm results in you being your own critic and this negatively impacts your life and your mental health. When bad external experiences happen, you internalize them as your fault rather than examining the social systems that prevent you from having a full and humane existence."

What is “racial harm” and how does it impact one’s mental health?

LW: Racial harm is caused by experiences of being treated as less than as a result of one’s race. Being taught that you’re inferior as a result of perceptions held by others about your race then gets internalized and shapes how you see yourself, the options you think you have in life and the choices you make. If you see yourself as less than, you might not strive to be who you actually could be because you don’t think it’s possible to achieve your aspirations and goals.

This often causes a sense of isolation and trauma-invoked responses. For instance, maybe you wouldn’t put yourself out there because of the belief you’ll be mistreated and harmed. So racial harm results in you being your own critic and this negatively impacts your life and your mental health. When bad external experiences happen, you internalize them as your fault rather than examining the social systems that prevent you from having a full and humane existence.

For example, recently, I was speaking with a client and she was describing her experience at work. As she was talking, I was picking up that she was experiencing racism in the workplace. She was being constantly nitpicked and not getting the same support as her (non-black) coworkers. But instead of calling what she was experiencing racism she was saying, “I’m not good enough.” It wasn’t until we had conversations where we unpacked the treatment that we could identify that it wasn’t a result of what she was or wasn’t doing but a direct result of the bias associated with the colour of her skin.

Racism creates a sense of isolation and a sense of self-doubt. This client was so used to accepting her mistreatment and living with it in order to keep herself safe, but it was limiting her and causing a lot of anxiety around her performance. Anxiety her white coworkers were free from.

How can therapy help black clients cope with – and work through – the impact of racial harm?

LW: Because of my experiences as a black woman, I can help black clients stop internally silencing their experiences of racism and create a safe space for them to give voice to the raw emotion of that harm. Together, we can name and claim their experiences so they can create coping mechanisms to address these challenges in a way that doesn’t impact them as much and allows them to reach their potential.

"I have black clients who say, “I picked you because you were black.” There’s a sense of familiarity and belonging. When your therapist is someone who you share a background with, it gives space to talk about racial harm and how it’s impacting you in your everyday experiences and in terms of your mental health."

Why is it so important to have more black representation in mental health care?

LW: Oftentimes I have black clients who say, “I picked you because you were black.” There’s a sense of familiarity and belonging. When your therapist is someone who you share a background with, it gives space to talk about racial harm and how it’s impacting you in your everyday experiences and in terms of your mental health.

This country has been built on creating a racial hierarchy – so there’s often a deep sense of distrust of systems among people of colour based on indirect or direct experiences of racism. When people don’t see representations of themselves in mental health care, they might not feel like they’re truly going to be heard or their feelings and emotions won’t be validated. Working with someone who shares your background can create a sense of safety.

What needs to change to improve the current state of mental health care for black North Americans?

LW: I think the mental health system needs to look at racial harm and the impact thereof. There needs to be a focus on it in the same way there is a focus on cancer victims, and domestic abuse survivors. There’s nothing right now that specifically looks at racial harm and the way it shows up in the day to day experiences of people of colour. Even though statistics show there’s a high number of black people, especially black males, who experience mental health challenges like depression. In order to address mental health as it pertains to black people generally, you really have to look at the impact of slavery, colonization, post-colonization and systemic barriers. There needs to be more training around this and there needs to be specific programs in place to address this need.

What would you say to someone who is racialized and wants to seek mental health support but is hesitant?

LW: It’s normal to feel on the fence about seeking care. This is a system that wasn’t designed with people of colour in mind. And most likely as a result of systemic barriers, the family of someone who is racialized didn’t have the means to access therapy so it was not normalized.

If you’re racialized – and specifically a black person in this case – it’s important to know that it will be more than beneficial for you to work through your experiences of race and racism. If you live in North America, you’ve experienced racial harm in some way or form, that’s going to show up in how you see yourself and how you travel in this world.

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