The continued histrionic dehumanization, oppression, and violence against Black Americans has been persistent and malignant. Structural and institutional racism that many Blacks experience cultivates a uniquely mistrustful experience for many Blacks characterized by various disparities, including inadequate access to and delivery of care in the health care system. Processing and dealing with layers of individual trauma in conjunction with new, more significant traumas from the current tumultuous socio-racial and social-cultural climate have only added insult to injury and has caused increased mental health concerns for members of the Black community.
As a result, help-seeking behaviors among Blacks are characterized by mistrust of the medical system. which is unfortunate because effective mental health care is needed. A 2020 study found that 44% of the Black participants reported symptoms persistent with depression and anxiety, and 15% said they had seriously considered suicide. JAMA Psychiatry reported that suicide rates among Black Americans doubled during the pandemic. Yet, the American Psychiatric Association reported only one in three Black Americans in need of mental health care receives treatment.
Research shows that Black individuals who screen positive for depression self-identify as planning to seek help at higher rates than the general population and when they do receive medical treatment for. Mental health issues, research suggests that Black clients receive worse medical care than white clients. However, sadly, Black providers, who are known to give more appropriate and effective care to Black clients, make up a tiny portion of the behavioral health provider workforce. Because of these factors, Blacks are more likely to experience chronic and persistent, rather than episodic, mental health conditions.
Attorney, co-founder of LikeU Cards, and co-host of a daily talk show on Los Angeles radio station KBLA Talk 1580, Kiara Imani, is answering the call to action with her new book published by Lit Riot Press, Therapy Isn’t Just For White People. Kiara’s high anticipated book is a debut memoir chronicling Imani’s compelling journey to understand the racial trauma experienced by many Black people in America and its underlying effect on Black mental health. Through therapy, Imani was introduced to the concept of racial trauma and discovered how her own unrecognized racial trauma affected her mental health, self-image, and worldview.
Forbes had the opportunity to sit down with Kiara to talk about her new book and mental health issues in the Black community.
What message do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your new book, Therapy Isn’t Just For White People?
MORE FOR YOU
Therapy Isn’t Just For White People is a nonfiction memoir detailing experiences from my life growing up as a Black woman in America navigating predominately white spaces and the underlying effect those experiences had on my mental health. As minorities, we’re constantly having to prove our worth to white America while also struggling to maintain a sense of our own identity and culture, all on top of dealing with the everyday stressors of life. It wasn’t until I started going to therapy that I began to unpack the impact my story has had on my mental health.
My book is a collection of easily digestible, personal narrative essays, organized by theme, some serious, some funny, documenting the types of daily traumas and micro-traumas I’ve experienced as a Black woman living in America. I share many stories about my life growing up that I processed with my therapist as an adult.
I wrote this book with the goal of helping non-Black people empathize with the complexities of racial identity development by inviting them into my personal story. With so many fingers pointing at each other, I think it’s powerful to take a non-academic approach to discuss race when it seems like conversations around this topic are so polarizing. For people of color, I hope this book will serve as a reminder that Black stories don’t have to be trauma porn to be relevant and powerful.
What motivated you to write your book?
Growing up, I struggled a lot with questions about my racial identity. “What does it mean to be Black?”, “Why did God make me a Black a woman?” and “Would my life be better if I wasn’t a Black woman?” These questions would continue living in my mind like an itchy tag on the back of a t-shirt – annoying and ever-present. As I grew older, my inability to reconcile my identity with the feedback I received about what it meant to be a black woman in society manifested in – stress, anxiety, and depression.
As a Black woman who found a lot of success in my career early, the world did not feel like a safe space to cry, break down, or ask hard questions. People from church told me, “I was too blessed to be stressed.” White people said that since slavery and segregation were things of the past, I had nothing to complain about. The more I accomplished — graduating from college, getting my Juris doctorate, landing a great job — the less space people gave me to be human. The irony if they only knew that most of my achievements were coping mechanisms. As history has shown us, being a woman, Black, illiterate, and uneducated is considered unworthy.
I learned to mask my emotions, telling myself that my problems weren’t that bad. But masking my emotions didn’t make my problems go away. It made them much worse. My anxiety skyrocketed. When it got to the point where my anxiety attacks made it hard for me to get out of bed, I reluctantly turned to therapy. Therapy was the first time in my life I gave myself permission to reflect, respond, and grieve.
I wanted to write a book that acknowledged the many micro-traumas Black people experience daily — racial slights at work, gas-lighting comments denying the effects of past racial history on current conditions, invalidating trauma of those with lived experience, and appropriating Black culture to make sales without caring about Black issues. My goal was not to look good or sound smart but to tell the truth. I talk about my relationship with a white Jesus, my choice to attend a predominantly white university, and even my complex feelings toward white women.
What is racial trauma, and what are the possible mental health implications of racial trauma for Black Americans?
The definition of trauma that resonates with me comes from trauma therapist Dr. Anita Phillips. She defines trauma as any experience that negatively impacts how we see God, ourselves, or others. Racial trauma, as I understand it is the cumulative effect of trauma rooted in racism.
As a Black American, I have experienced racial trauma on both an individual and societal level. In addition to dealing with the everyday traumas in my own life, I’m constantly processing the collective trauma shared by Black Americans stemming from the historical mistreatment of Black people in this country.
Learning about how Black homes and businesses were burned in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is traumatic. Watching Police officers on television brutalize Black bodies is traumatic. Each isolated incident may only have a minor impact, but when aggregated over time, I have learned they can wreak havoc on our mental health. Jim Crow was only two generations ago. Some people are still alive that lived through segregation. We can’t stop talking about the truth because it makes us feel uncomfortable.
What have been some of your own personal experiences with exposure to racism or racial trauma, and how did those experiences impact you?
So much of the racism I’ve experienced throughout my life has been in the form of microaggressions – subtle or unintentional discrimination.
In my book, Therapy Isn’t Just For White People, I share dozens of stories from my life about microaggressions I’ve experienced. I share a story about how one of my older white professors in law school told me I was “smart for a colored girl.” I talk about dating as a Black woman and the racial stereotypes that plagued me. Being strong, successful, and accomplished is conflated with being too aggressive, dominant, stubborn, and a threat to a man’s power, making you unfit for marriage. I talk about white emergency room doctors who completely ignored my complaints, and medical symptoms may have compromised my ability to have children.
These experiences made me ashamed of who I am, and for a long time, it was hard to see myself as someone deserving of love and belonging. My whole life had been about trying to show society I was good enough by achieving things, but what happens when perceived success isn’t enough to protect you from being Black?
I’ve had to learn how to validate my own experiences. I now give myself permission to feel angry, upset, disappointed, or whatever negative emotions I’m experiencing.
What are your thoughts about racism among White mental health providers in the health care system?
In my book, I talk very candidly about my grandfather’s mistrust of health care providers. He is not alone in this. Black people’s distrust of healthcare professionals dates back to the historical abuse of white doctors for medical experimentation, including the 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis experiments and the Mississippi appendectomies where Black women were unknowingly sterilized.
I’ve also heard horror stories from Black friends who had white therapists about how they spent large portions of their sessions teaching their therapists about the complexities of racial identity. For this reason, I very intentionally sought out a therapist of color. I didn’t have to explain to her what microaggressions were or break down the complexities of colorism in the Black community. I felt very understood by her.
I think there is a general lack of knowledge amongst white people related to the Black experience that can’t be captured on an intake form. I wrote this book to allow white clinicians to be students of a Black story in a way that’s not beating them over the head or making them feel bad but inviting them to practice empathy while reading. Since racism is learned, it can also be unlearned, and storytelling is a powerful force that can help people, especially mental health professionals, gain a deeper understanding of the types of things their Black clients may be experiencing.