Seeking mental healthcare is a daunting process, even when you have affordable insurance. It proves even more difficult when your problems are rooted in oppression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, members of the LGBTQ+ community are almost three times more likely to experience mental health problems compared to heterosexuals. With multiple marginalized identities comes multiple levels of discrimination, which brings that mental health number even higher for LGBTQ+ people of color.
Safe spaces are hard to come by in a society that tells you that parts of your identity are inferior or inherently wrong. While therapy can do amazing things for someone who’s going through a hard time, LGBTQ+ people of color face more obstacles in finding the right fit than our white counterparts.
When I first sought out therapy on my own I lived in a white, affluent Chicago North Shore suburb. The first thing on my mind was to make sure whoever I was going to be sitting across from--on a regular basis and at my most vulnerable--would be capable of talking through the experience of intersectional identity. (One of my biggest hesitations was that I would have to spend unnecessary time walking someone through the nuances of how my sexual orientation and ethnic identity interact with one another.) If not in society, then the intimate confines of a therapist’s office *must* be a safe space if I was to get anywhere.
It was already weird enough to me that I was going to pay to sit with someone to talk about my problems. Growing up in a predominately Latinx community, I didn’t know anyone who had gone to therapy. In my family, if you were going through something, you suffered quietly through an unhealthy mix of repression and prayer, which is a common attitude in many communities of color. Therapy was for people with “real problems.”
When I first started thinking about investing in my mental health, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash, was working an exhausting job, and then of course there was the issue of pesky ol’ depression rendering me incapable of even getting out of bed some days. It sounded like a lot of Googling, something I didn’t have the time or energy to do.
I was hurting because, at the heart of it, my identities were conflicting. I could not for the life of me convince my parents that my dating a woman wasn’t the worst thing in the world. They both grew up in super conservative Latin American countries with strong Catholic influences. In their book, a “good daughter” stays close to home, goes to school, and eventually meets a “good man”; they are virgins until marriage and most definitely do not date other women. At the height of my depression, I wrote this short poem and I think it does a good job of explaining where I was at:
There are days I wake up feeling a hundred pounds heavier
already defeated by the weight of my selves-
Identities who have spent the night pushing and shoving and spitting at one another
tell them to relax, cálmense.
but they are selfish. They each want to exist in peace
so do I.
Two parts of myself that I held with equal pride did not fit together, and I was mourning that.
The feeling of drowning got bad enough that I knew I needed to find a life vest, a safe space to heal. I know something that made the process hard for me was that I didn’t have a blueprint to go off of. But I reached, and came to a place that worked for me:
Step 1: If you have insurance, dig up information and see what your coverage looks like. This is hard and easy to put off. Luckily, you should be able to avoid interacting with humans and do this online.
Step 2: If it looks financially feasible, look up providers near you. Scribble down names of people who are close enough to see regularly. If you Google them you can usually find information about areas they specialize in. I had my eyes peeled for the words “multicultural” and “LGBT,” but you can find just about anything—from substance abuse to eating disorders to PTSD. Highlight those names on your list.
Step 3: Call a bunch of people and try to give them a quick summary of what you’re going through and looking for. Pay attention to how they respond.
Step 4: In an ideal situation, make a few initial appointments to meet counselors in person and get to know them a bit so that you have options. In real life, however, sometimes ain’t nobody got time for that. I made one initial appointment and was lucky enough that she was the perfect person to start seeing.
Disclaimer: Making appointments is hard! Especially when you’re depressed and/or anxious. If you miss one or two or a lot, just remember that therapists work with people who miss appointments all the time. Forgive yourself and try to make the next one.
This is how I found Lynn, the real MVP of this story. I came to her in tatters and she listened every step of the way. I started under the misconception that therapy would be cold and clinical, and that sessions would be awkward and full of “how do you feel about that’s.” I was scared of someone telling me what to do or think.
What I found was that therapy isn’t like that at all. It can be like talking to a friend, only your friend is a neutral party who never gives advice, only listens, and literally got a degree to help you talk through your problems. I was apprehensive about the fact that Lynn is white (I completely understand that being a reservation for many people of color when it comes to seeking help). Something to keep in mind, though, is that therapists are well-trained in practicing empathy and that skill can do a lot in bridging cultural and emotional gaps.
When I first started seeing my counselor in early 2016, I couldn’t fathom what the year would have in store. June’s Pulse shooting wrecked me for a while. This month marks a year since it happened and we are still in mourning, particularly LGBTQ+ Latinxs who saw our friends and family in the faces of the fallen. Police brutality. The election. Constant reminders of the fragility of civil rights. It was a tough year to belong to any traditionally marginalized group. I feel lucky to have found Lynn before this shit ramped up the way it did, to have found my safe and secure space in a world that ceaselessly pointed out my intersectional vulnerability.
It was only through therapy that I learned I am stronger than I think, that negative thoughts won’t get me anywhere, and that detaching from my close-knit family unit is okay, and not selfish. With a healthy dose of therapy and medication, I was able to keep it relatively together, and I can’t be more grateful for those privileges.
Those of us from communities of color are sent the message that asking for help is a sign of weakness, that the right thing to do is to rough it out on our own. We are not taught the idea of self-care because so much of the time, our families come from a place of survival and coping with the world. Queer black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde once wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” We can and should change the stigma about mental health in our inner circles, if not for us but for the generations ahead of us to know that asking for help is okay. That is how we move forward. This is how we survive. The process of discussing and caring for our mental health, however difficult it is, can be our individual and cultural safe and secure space.
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