When therapists gaslight Black people into tranquility instead of validating our legitimate anxieties
If your mental health professional focuses on trying to shrink the fears of Black anxiety instead, they are probably not for you.
Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
By Gloria Oladipo
The world does not know what to do with Black anxiety. When Black people speak about the anxiety that comes from existing in a world that wants us gone, white people tell us to be “rational.” When we speak of our paranoia around white structures, white mental health professionals tell us, “not all white people.”
Since childhood, I have had an obsessive fear of harm coming to myself, my friends, and my family. At first, it started out as casual thoughts popping up throughout my day. I worried about not doing well on an exam I had studied for. I was anxious about whether or not I had forgotten my lunch at home again. These daily anxieties weren’t extremely taxing; in fact, I often regarded them as annoying but necessary personal reminders: remember to study, remember to take your lunch to school, remember, remember, remember.
Unfortunately, my concerns never stayed so innocent. My general anxiety transformed into a specifically Black anxiety when I first began to understand the distinct violence that Black people experience. As a child, I had always been anxious about tragedy coming to family and friends. However, around the age of 11 or 12, as I began to hear and see examples of Black people being targeted by white structures, I felt increasingly paranoid and scared for the Black people in my life, anxious about the violence they would face. It didn’t help to watch kids my own age being terrorized for simply existing.
For many Black people in my generation, we have continually bore witness to the death of people who look like us—who could be us. Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin were murdered when I was 12 years old. Michael Brown was murdered 3 days after my 15th birthday. Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald were also murdered when I was 15. Sandra Bland was murdered right before I turned 16. Nia Wilson was murdered when she was my age. The timeline of our lives are decorated with Black skeletons and we are still waiting on justice.
White psychiatrists and psychologists have gaslit me and other Black people into tranquility, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Black people do die—sometimes, yes, of accident, but also at the calculated hands of white supremacy. I am scared my siblings will be murdered by police. I am scared of my parents being victims of hate crimes. My Black friends are walking targets for law enforcement. Black people are constantly policed out of spaces by those who view us as “threatening”: our schools, homes, public parks that are “supposed” to be for everyone. I wish these fears were irrational, but it is a paranoia that has more than just a kernel of truth. These are real events that happen everyday and are growing more frequent.
There is a devastating lack of mental health professionals who validate the feelings of Black anxiety. There are few mental health resources to address the grief that comes when Black people are continually killed because of white supremacy.
Usually, the treatment for anxiety is to point out to sufferers that the likelihood of engaging with their fear is near impossible; however, this treatment model is less effective for Black anxiety because of the reality and increasing nature of violence against Black people.
Specific treatments such as Exposure Therapy, a treatment that involves recurrently exposing the anxious person to their fear, aren’t effective either. How do you productively expose someone to Black death and brutality for therapeutic ends? Obviously, we need to reconfigure the way that we address anxiety in Black bodies, but what are effective alternatives?
For one, mental health professionals need to dispose of the term “not all white people.” “Not all white people” murder, they say. “Not all white people” are responsible for police brutality or for hate crimes or other instances of violence against Black people.
When I am mentioning white people to my therapy groups and in other mental health settings, I am discussing the phenomenon of white supremacy, which no white person can divorce themselves from. Violence that is targeted against Black people doesn’t ever happen individually, but is a part of a structural problem of white supremacy. Trying to differentiate acts of violence as a problem of only a few bad white people is insulting and a fundamental misunderstanding of how power operates.
Secondly, more mental health resources need to address the targeted violence that Black people experience. Black people, both within and outside of my generation, are continuously exposed to this violence. However, how many mental health resources actually recognize the pain that Black people feel when constantly bearing witness to the killing of Black folk?
When Nia Wilson was murdered, my therapist at the time had no idea how to navigate the grief I was feeling. In school, none of my teachers checked in with me about the death of Sandra or Rekia or Trayvon or any other Black person. These institutions do not give me and other Black people a platform to process what we are seeing or feeling, and we deserve a space to process this grief.
To treat my general anxiety, in addition to recognizing the ugliness of the world, my current therapist reminds me that bad things can and do happen. I could become gravely ill or my friends could pass. I am reminded that the cure to anxiety is not ridding ourselves of these thoughts, but becoming comfortable with uncertainty and the reality that bad things occur. My parents could die from a hate crime. My siblings could be murdered by police.
This ability to recognize the reality of Black anxiety is not how many therapists operate. Many will attempt to minimize these fears as paranoia. If your mental health professional focuses on trying to shrink the fears of Black anxiety instead, they are probably not for you. A more comprehensive and strategic treatment should center around confronting the realities of these fears and demonstrating to suffers ways that they can cope. Black anxiety isn’t something that should be ignored, but worked with and prepared for.
Black anxiety is a reality I have struggled with my whole life. I am constantly fearful of the ways that I and others can be harmed or killed because of our Blackness. But I am learning not to minimize my fears or avoid them. Instead, I owe it to myself to understand the reality of these anxieties and to seek out peace regardless.