The Mental Health Profession and Racism

 I have thought a lot about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial which led me to thinking about mental health professionals and how one’s belief system regarding people of color affects his or her assessment and treatment philosophy. I also wonder whether or not a mental health professional, who was born and raised in this society, can really be free of its inherent racial biases.

So, in this article, we will briefly identify three types of racism; unintentional, subtle, and institutional; each affects a person’s thinking and behavior. Unintentional racism is insidious, indirect, and outside of one’s conscious awareness. I see this as a partial explanation for the verdict in the trial. The jury was composed of six women – five were White and one was Latina; the prosecutors, although male, were white. Did they know how a black boy is raised or his life view? Were they aware that Mothers of black juveniles teach them to be particularly cautious around Law Enforcement?

It seems possible that the jurors looked at the case through a White perspective, assuming that all cultures saw things through the same lens, which is not true. Similarly, mental health providers who view themselves as being totally free of prejudice may underestimate the impact of the subtle, yet, very real, process of socialization. Corey, and Callanan (2011) describe “cultural tunnel vision” as a perception of reality based on a limited set of cultural experiences.

Mental health professionals, particularly those new to the profession, may unwittingly impose their values and beliefs on unsuspecting clients; assuming that everyone’s are the same. It is essential to explore one’s attitude and fears regarding people who are different; and, for example, to consider that what is being thought of as resistance may actually be a healthy response on the part of the client.

Members of the dominant culture in the United States tend to favor members of their race: not only because they are more comfortable with their own, but also because they may believe that a white person’s life is more valuable. Conversely, if oppressed groups internalize the belief that other cultures are superior, they, too, may unconsciously employ everyday racism.

This thinking can unintentionally create microaggressions or every day insults which communicate hostile and derogatory feelings toward racial minorities. They can be defined as a) microassaults like purposeful discrimination or name-calling, b) microinsults like rudeness or insensitivity, and c) microinvalidation like exclusion or negation.

Professor Alvin Alvarez of San Francisco State University describes everyday racism as a subtle, common form of discrimination like ignoring, ridiculing, or treating those of other races differently. (http://racerelations.about.com/od/understandingrac1/a/subtleracismexamples.htm).

It is expressed in one’s body language, speech, and actions; such as a clerk paying extra attention to a person of color in a store or a white woman holding her purse a little tighter when a black youth is nearby. For a mental health professional, everyday racism might be talking down to clients of color or being insensitive to the differences in their cultures.

Such incidents appear innocent and small, but like the dripping of water on a rock, they have a powerful impact on an individual’s mental health. Institutions, schools, and mental health agencies are just as capable of imposing oppressive or otherwise negative conditions against identifiable groups on the basis of race, unintentionally hurting them.

Examples of organizational racism may include acting in overtly racist ways such as specifically excluding people of color from obtaining services or being inherently racist as in adopting policies that result in the exclusion of people of color. In this article, we discussed three types of racism and how they may affect a mental health professional during the assessment and treatment process. Each of us must search ourselves to make sure that we are not unconsciously looking through these filters as we work with clients.

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