Illustration by GOOD STUDIO / ADOBE STOCK
Author Gabe Torres / Yes Magazine / 7.28.22
How to Decolonize Mental Health Treatment for BIPOC
Note: Whenever you read the terms BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), racialized people, and racially marginalized, I mean them synonymously while understanding the distinctiveness of experiences and respective identities of racially oppressed peoples.
Whenever I refer to BIPOC, I refer to us as “we,” because I, the writer, identify as a person of color with collectivist inclinations in the way I use language.
We’ve seen systemic and structural racism in the media, heard or witnessed it from our families and communities, and experienced it ourselves. That said, this is not an essay that gives the trauma from racialized violence and White supremacy center stage, not to diminish its truth but to highlight other truths. More than exploring how BIPOC are disproportionately impacted in experiencing mental health issues, I’d like to focus on why we are also experiencing the challenges in accessing the support and care to address and tend to these issues.
A widely known reason why it is more challenging for BIPOC to access mental health services is racial poverty. Black and Indigenous communities have the highest poverty rates in the U.S., with Black Americans at 19.5% and Native Americans at 25.4% as of 2018 (the U.S. Census Bureau data on poverty for 2019–2020 does not show Native Americans or Alaska Natives as a category for a racial group; more information here). Latinx communities’ poverty rate has increased to 17% since 2020, and Asian communities’ to 8.1%. Therapy is expensive, and with the reality of racial inequity, the majority of racialized communities likely cannot afford it—or their insurance cannot adequately cover these sustained services.
Another reason why racialized communities do not pursue mental health services is our common suspicions toward therapy. For some of us, there is a historical stigma ingrained when it comes to the topic of mental illness. Years ago, when I talked with my family about the potential need for therapy due to depression and anxiety, they responded by labeling it as “a White people issue” or “First World problems.” They even went as far as indicating that my depressive episodes were a sign I wasn’t grateful enough for my family’s sacrifices and generosity, that I would still need extra help to get by in life. Other racialized families also have concerns around “family business,” where there’s an expectation to want to keep—or hide—issues of the family within the family. Looking back at it now, I know my feelings were invalidated, but in a way, I can see their point. It is hard for BIPOC to entrust their mental health struggles to an institution that is largely run by White people.
The spiritual traditions of BIPOC have components of embodiment (dancing, meditation, breath work), rhythm or repetition (chanting, altar-setting, ceremony), and connecting with one’s community and with a higher being (prayer, visiting temples or sanctuaries). These elements make up so much of the healing practices in the wellness industry today—a majority of which were banned during colonization but are now used and appropriated by White practitioners. (An example of this is how non-Indigenous peoples have appropriated smudging.)