by Manu Kaur
Content Note: mention of abuse, specific transphobic comments by a therapist
“Your mother has the option to leave, you know?” –a white therapist who genuinely thought she was dropping some profound knowledge on me that could help with my debilitating PTSD and anxiety. It had the opposite effect. I felt invalidated and stigmatized. I felt triggered and I did not know how to advocate for myself in a space that was supposed to advocate for me. I did not see this therapist again. It was one of my first experiences with therapy and it discouraged me to pursue therapy for many months, even though I desperately needed it.
My mother didn’t just have the option to leave. As a Sikh Punjabi, divorce is a taboo. Women didn’t just leave their husbands. My mother’s own parents reinforced the idea that she should endure whatever pain comes from her marriage with my father.
I am not sharing this to trash-talk my culture or my family. I love my culture and I am proud to be a Punjaban. My culture has influenced many of my identities. Although the Punjabi community has not always accepted my queerness and mental illnesses, my culture is extremely important to me. My culture and lived experiences as a non-binary femme of color have a daily impact on my mental health.
White therapists can take numerous cultural humility courses & read about my brownness in textbooks but it will never compare to the lived experiences of therapists of color. I interacted with multiple white therapists who could not relate to my struggles and thus provided advice that was not appropriate for my traumas. The cultural barrier significantly decreased the effectiveness of the therapy sessions and increased my own anxiety in opening up about my problems. I did not feel supported in the ways that I needed, which contributed to me canceling my appointments and ending my sessions prematurely.
My experience is not unique. Many people of color do not trust white therapists because often times we have to provide the unpaid emotional labor of educating that therapist about the oppression we experience as people of color. These oppressions contribute to our mental health issues. It is exhausting to not only navigate these oppressive systems but to also educate white therapists about the existence of these oppressive systems. Systemic oppression tends to be one of the main issues that contributes to the anxiety and depression of people of color in the first place. Therefore, it is ridiculous that people of color have to navigate the same systemic oppression when seeking therapy.
One way to minimize these barriers is to recruit and retain people of color therapists, particularly therapists of color who work through an intersectionality based framework. I vividly remember seeing a white therapist who told me to end things with my then trans-identified partner because this partner seemed “confused” about their gender and she expressed that I didn’t need that stress in my life as a POC. Her blatant transphobia and lack of sensitivity around me coming to terms with my queerness worsened my anxiety.
I am Punjabi and I am also queer, non-binary and I live with multiple mental illnesses and trauma. If my therapist is not informed of these issues and is not actively de-colonizing their practice to provide an intersectionality based therapy, it will harm my mental health.
“I need QTPOC therapists because I am tired of feeling like my gender experience is invalid and I need someone to understand how violent white supremacy is on my body” – R
“I need QTPOC therapists because I don’t want to walk into a session seeing things from my culture being minimized into ‘calming vibes’ ” –M
These are submissions from fellow queers from my proposal to my Uni regarding hiring more queer & trans people of color (QTPOC) therapists. I created an instagram account (@qtpocmxntalhealth) to voice the concerns by fellow QTPOC in my circle.
It has been difficult to be consistent with this advocacy work because of my own mental health struggles but I hope to create a platform that advocates for more QTPOC therapists on campus and in society. Although all therapists should take continuing education courses and stay informed on cultural issues, there is a deficit of QTPOC therapists and it is hurting the queer community.
White therapists should create more access to and recruitment of therapists of color within their agency of practice or network. I had a white therapist for four years who helped me heal from painful trauma. However, I did find myself overlooking some cultural appropriative methods she used and I refrained from certain topics in fear of offending her. These issues made our relationship feel more conditional and less authentic. I did not feel comfortable even bringing these issues up because of the power dynamics I felt.
I was recently connected with a Punjabi Sikh therapist and she just got it. I did not have to explain certain things to her and she understood the safety concerns of not being out in certain spaces. She understood that my mother could not just leave. She understood that I can’t just go out for the entire day when living under my family’s household, even though I am 26 years old. I did not have to spend precious time explaining or educating. We can actually focus on my healing and growth for the entire 50 minutes of session.
One of the most impactful moments I have had with this therapist is discussion of Sikhism and she reassured me that the scripture does not actively state anything against queerness. She said she would do more research into it. She said I was not alone in my struggle and that she knew many queer Sikhs and even had some of them as clients. It has been very reassuring and validating to have the active support of an older Sikh Punjabi woman as my therapist. I feel extremely lucky. But I want to acknowledge my privilege of having access to affordable therapy and being able to see different people. Most people of color, particularly queer people of color, are not so lucky. It is important that the barriers to receiving appropriate care be minimized so that people of color are not re-traumatized when trying to access mental health resources. Therefore, I will continue to advocate for the recruitment and retention of QTPOC therapists until it is finally a priority within the mental health community.
Meet the Author:
Manu is a Punjabi non-binary queer femme who uses they/them pronouns and is living with depression, GAD, and OCD. They recently graduated from UC Davis with a double major in neurobiology and psychology after 8 years of struggling in academia. They have moved back home with family and plan to study for the MCAT and apply to medical school because they want to be a radical queer doctor who serves the QTPOC community. They are passionate about intersectional queer feminism and advocating for queer mental health services. Follow their instagram account: @meowingmanu.