African-American women in the mental health field carry more burdens than anyone would know. It’s a burden we embrace and don’t know how to let go of.
In my work, I counsel mostly black women, teenagers and families. Though I enjoy working with them, there will come a time where I will be ready to move on from community mental health and reach new heights in my career. Though the thought of leaving excites me, my nerves become wrecked when I think about my ending my relationships with my clients. I struggle with feeling obligated to stay because of my cultural competence and connection to my own people. I feel their pain, so I advocate for them because I know what they are faced with. However, at some point I have to start to advocate for myself, which is easier said than done.
The agencies in these black and brown communities are white, too white. This leads to a disconnect between the clients and their therapists as well as the administration. I’ve been told countless times by clients who previously had white therapists that they sugarcoated their problems because they didn’t want to be vulnerable with someone who didn’t look like them or that they felt like they had to act proper or whitewash their vernacular in fear of not being understood or judged. They know with me none of that will happen. We look at each other and there is an unsaid understanding and from that point on the therapeutic relationship flourishes.
A black therapist and their client have an alliance that is invaluable. My clients know that I don’t pity the black experience and trauma that comes with it because I clearly understand it because I have lived it. They know that I understand the experience of the black woman in America and the systemic racism that affects her and her children. They know that I come from the same place as them, understand the dynamics of the black family and know the adversity that we face as people of color. I haven’t walked in their shoes, but I have my own pair with similar mileage and scuffs.
My clients look at me and see family, so how can I leave them? How can I leave my job knowing that there’s a chance they may not be able to recreate that same bond because their next therapist may not look like them? In my eyes, leaving my job means abandoning them. However if I stay, I will also be turning my back on my own dreams and aspirations and will also promote burnout within myself. It’s hard for a selfless person in a selfless profession to choose themselves in the end. Unfortunately, us black therapists don’t choose ourselves until there’s compassion fatigue. We actually end up perpetuating the same habits of our clients: putting others before ourselves and not practicing self-care to help manage our stress. We must practice what we preach and if that means moving on, so be it.