Reducing Mental Health Stigma and Why Who You are Matters in Therapy

By Karin Amador, LPC-Associate
Supervised by Jennifer Buffalo, LPC-S, LMFT

Before I became a therapist, I was once a client struggling to navigate my search for a therapist. I had reached my breaking point with some of the issues I was having, and I felt that I couldn’t continue trying to resolve them without some help.

I went through the process of searching for a therapist online and was met with an overwhelming feeling that clung to the little motivation I had at the time. While I was open to seeing any therapist, I wondered if they would be able to help me fix my problems. This consequently left me questioning if my concerns were even serious enough to see a therapist in the first place.

When I finally consulted a therapist and met him for an intake session, I found that he didn’t just want to know about the precipitating event that led me to reach out, but he wanted to know me.

Coming from a Central American immigrant family, I was taught to share only when needed. The only word I can use to describe what it felt like was “icky.” I shared my medical history, sexual orientation, age, ability, education, cultural background as a first-generation American, and my family’s mental health history and functionality (or lack thereof). These were all things that didn’t feel relevant at the time. There was something so freeing about sharing and connecting on some of these things with my gay, white male therapist.

When we dove into the issue that brought me to therapy (the devastating end to a 5-year relationship), I found that there was so much more going on with me than just the changes in my relationships. There were these unique experiences I had. Issues hidden deep down that I felt I couldn’t share with my friends. I feared that sharing my differences would single me out, but keeping everything to myself left me feeling unnoticed.

The more I talked to my therapist, the more I shared about how “normal” experiences for people felt so different for me. It made me wonder how I had endured so much despite feeling so isolated by my issues. After spending time in therapy, I learned how all my different identities affected me so much more than I thought. Many times, my unique issues left me feeling misunderstood. It also reminded me of how resilient I was. Despite all the challenges from my differences, I was still here.

Intersectionality refers to the interconnectedness of social categories like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, spiritual background, socioeconomic status, ability, national origin, and language (and more) that create unique experiences of discrimination or privilege for a person. The overlap of various parts of our identity gives us a deeper understanding of who we are and how we live life. It’s the reason why, at the time, I had felt so alone in a neuroscience college classroom where only a small percentage of students checked the same boxes as I did. It was also the reason why I feared that there wasn’t a place for my problems in therapy. Therapy was something that wasn’t experienced or encouraged by those around me.

Now, as a therapist, I am reminded of the influence of intersectionality on the unique issues and life experiences that bring clients to therapy. By acknowledging my own differences, privileges, or disadvantages, I can continue creating a safe space where my clients can show up as they are. I am aware that many clients who seek therapy don’t know if therapy is right for them or may not know anyone who has been in therapy. Then, by adding the discomfort of sharing identities, histories, and issues, people are left feeling like therapy is not made for people like them (a feeling that I have felt MANY times).

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Your problems are important, no matter how big or small they may appear to others. If you are considering starting therapy, I invite you to consider these tips when searching for a culturally aware therapist.

First, create a short checklist of the characteristics or preferences you would like in your therapist. Would you prefer working with a therapist who shares some of the same identities as you? Do you want to share specific values or beliefs with your therapist?

Second, access therapist directories, such as psychologytoday.com and inclusivetherapists.com, and read about a couple of therapists to see if you can check off any items from your checklist. Also, check whether the therapist has received training in providing culturally sensitive counseling or therapy or has experience working with diverse clients.

Finally, remember that you can interview multiple therapists until you find the one that best fits your needs. You deserve a safe space to explore your mental health without minimizing your differences, beliefs, values, experiences, and emotions. Proceed with courage and caution toward a therapist who creates a space for you to show up as you are.

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