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If you have felt the nudge, call, or Universal shove to take your self-care to the next level — and be open to getting a little uncomfortable — consider enlisting the help of a therapist. Sure, therapy has long held the reputation of being something that’s more commonly undertaken by our white sisters and brothers but more and more women of color are settling into a therapist’s room and laying it out for a trained professional.

I won’t pretend that choosing the therapy route and finding someone to work with is as easy as picking a massage studio for a deep tissue appointment. There’s a few layers to contend with, like general knowledge, accessibility, and stigmas within the black community. So we’ll take this easy and go step by step to help you suss out this whole therapy business and see if it’s the right fit for you.

What are the main types of therapies?

If you Google “therapy types”, you’ll come across a huge list of options. That said, there are three major therapy modalities and one that is starting to gain more awareness.

Talk Therapy: Also known as psychotherapy, this is the one you tend to see portrayed on television shows or in the movies. Picture a therapist seated in a stately Eames chair and a patient sitting across from them or perhaps even be reclined in a couch, facing away.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): Not to be confused with CBD, CBT practitioners will work with a patient on specific behaviors, thought patterns, fears, or compulsions and give them the tools to help break or better manage their thoughts and actions. They can often be trained to help with substance abuse disorders. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): I’ve heard about this therapy in passing, which is why I was excited to listen to the Therapy for Black Girls podcast #25 where the host, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, talked to EMDR therapist Kelli Davis. EMDR therapists access specific, triggering memories and have the client process them through rapid eye movement and the use of hand tappers.

I won’t pretend that choosing the therapy route and finding someone to work with is as easy as picking a massage studio for a deep tissue appointment. 

Therapy is nuanced and a person could technically benefit from more than one type but, for the sake of this article, here are some generalizations of which style could be best for you.

Talk Therapy is great for you if: 

  • You want to dig into your past
  • You are struggling with a breakup or death
  • You have anxiety or depression

CBT is great for you if:

  • You have or are struggling with substance use
  • You are dealing with an eating disorder or disordered eating
  • You have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia, Bipolar, or other mental health challenges (though you would likely also need to see a psychiatrist)

EMDR is great for you if:

What is the difference between a therapist, psychologist, and a psychiatrist?

There are a lot of titles and abbreviations within the world of therapy, which can all be a bit overwhelming. Here are the basics to help you feel more confident.

A therapist will listen, provide tools, and walk you through the therapy styles mentioned above. They cannot prescribe medication, though therapists with PhDs, also known as psychologists, can provide diagnoses (i.e., test for ADD/ADHD, Bipolar, etc.).

A therapist’s job abbreviation is based on their schooling and what they can/cannot do. Here are the common ones:

  • LCSW: licensed clinical social work
  • LPC: licensed professional counselor
  • LMHC: licensed mental health counselor
  • Ph.D.: a psychologist with a doctoral degree

A psychiatrist has a medical degree, and you would work with one if you needed medication for anxiety, depression, etc. It’s not uncommon to see both a therapist and a psychiatrist. 

This source and this source from Human Services Edu do a great job breaking down the differences. 

How long does a person stay in therapy?

This is dependent on the reason a person chooses to seek therapy. If you’ve gone through a sudden loss — job layoff, death, breakup or divorce, or racially charged situation — you might only see a therapist for a few sessions until you’ve processed and gathered the necessary tools to move forward.

Women who have ongoing mental health challenges might always stay in therapy to help manage and process the symptoms. The same is true for people who find value in talk therapy, though you might choose to go from weekly meetings to bi-weekly, monthly, or just schedule a visit when you feel you need a “tune-up”. 

From my own personal experience, I chose to go from weekly to bi-monthly meetings after a particular issue I came in for was more-or-less resolved and it felt like I was really having to dredge up things to talk about for an hour. You can always ask what the therapist suggests for a course of action and work with them to step down or ramp up when necessary.

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s talk about therapy and how it can specifically be useful for black women.

Therapy can help us be more vulnerable.

The idea of the Strong Black Woman comes from a well-meaning place, but it’s a double-edged sword that can make black women feel like reaching out for help equates to weakness. With the help of a therapist, we can start to break down that ideology and learn that we can be strong and vulnerable. And that we don’t need to do it all ourselves.

Therapy can allow us to process racial traumas.

Sadly, many black women carry racial traumas from verbal harassment, daily microaggressions, watching the news on any given day, and, in some cases, physical violence. We’re not meant to hold all this trauma by ourselves, and with the right therapist (which I’ll touch on soon), we can safely unload, vent, question, and process without someone minimizing our experiences or centering themselves. Talk about freeing! 

Therapy resources for black women:

If you’re a black woman who grew up in a community that stigmatized therapy, and you’re looking to question the things folks had to say, these two online resources immediately stick out: 

Through their posts and episodes, you can learn about different therapies and glean quick, useful tips. While it’s not the same as seeing a therapist 1 on 1, it’s a great way to get acclimated.

Ready to take the leap and start working with a therapist?

Start by contacting your insurance provider to learn what the sessions will cost and how many you can have a year. Depending on your income, you might also be able to get a sliding rate with a therapist, though usually, you’ll only know that after you’ve reached out to someone.

Yes, it can feel like you need a Ph.D. in health insurance to understand it all but give your provider a call and don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s what they’re there for! And trust me when I say everyone struggles with understanding their insurance plans, so you aren’t alone.

Once that’s complete, they’ll likely point you towards an online list of therapists that are in your insurance network. This is the method I used to find my therapist. 

After you’ve built a rapport with a therapist, they will push you when necessary and you might feel uncomfortable at times, because #emotions.

I reached out to one office a few times over the course of a month and could never get someone. Luckily, another woman I contacted got back to me immediately with an appointment time that week. I was a little concerned that we wouldn’t click — I’d heard so many stories of people seeing three therapists before finding the right one — but we did, and I’ve been working with her for a year.

After you’ve built a rapport with a therapist, they will push you when necessary and you might feel uncomfortable at times, because #emotions. However, you should always feel supported, safe, and respected. If in the first few sessions you don’t feel those, or something feels “off” (outside of general nerves that come with baring your soul to a new person), know you can always find someone else.

Should I see a black therapist?

Since this article is focused on helping black women, it’s reasonable to wonder if you should be working with a black therapist. The answer isn’t cut and dry, and that is a good thing because it gives you options.

When Ja’Kayla “Jay” Hill (@heyjayhill) first went to therapy at the suggestion of her friends, she didn’t work with a black therapist and they had a very positive three-year relationship. She’s seen a few other providers over the years, including a black therapist that helped her move outside her comfort zone, and this was someone she worked with for 3 months, due to her insurance coverage.

However, at an HBCU, she had a very short relationship with a black therapist who immediately put down an earlier diagnosis she had received and was “hell-bent” on proving to her that it was wrong. Ja’Kayla said, “That experience opened my eyes to the unfortunate dilemma that may be present within the black therapist community and that is: You may encounter a black therapist that carries their own personal stigma/denial about mental health in our culture.”

If you’re going into therapy to tackle racial issues specifically, it’s understandable if you’d feel more comfortable working with a therapist who looks like you. Therapy for Black Girls also has a wonderful directory, and this resource is especially useful for black women who do not live in overly diverse states or cities.

“That experience opened my eyes to the unfortunate dilemma that may be present within the black therapist community and that is: You may encounter a black therapist that carries their own personal stigma/denial about mental health in our culture.”

Even with the help of directories, there’s still a chance you won’t be able to work with a black therapist. If that happens, all is certainly not lost, and I turned to a white therapist, Amanda White, LPC (@therapyforwomen), to ask what black women can look for and ask to ensure they’re working with a therapist who has the ability to hold space. Her suggestions:

  • Look for therapists who have a focus on trauma, since “enduring racism in any capacity is trauma”
  • Look for an LCSW, as they generally receive more training around social welfare and policies, including those that can affect black women, more so than LPCs and PhDs
  • When contacting a therapist, you can be 100% transparent and ask if they would feel comfortable speaking with you about racism

Again, this can all be overwhelming, so remember this: When all is said and done, work with whoever makes you feel comfortable. Connecting with bosses, mentors, 12-Step sponsors, and therapists who share your complexion can be so valuable and healing, but the black community is not monolithic and every black therapist will have their take on things that you might love or bristle at. And since therapy isn’t cheap, you owe it to yourself to find the person that makes you feel so supported after you leave that you don’t begrudge the costs. 

Going to therapy can at first feel like a shameful admission that something is gravely wrong with us or that we aren’t smart enough to “hack it.” I disagree. I think raising your hand and saying you need help to process your feelings, a situation, or figure out why you don’t feel at home in your head is one of the smartest and bravest things we can do for self-care.

It can also be strangely hard for us women, especially black women, to lean on someone and fall apart, since we’re the ones used to being leaned on. But therapy lets us go in, break down, and rebuild with the help of another person who truly wants to see us succeed, and we have every right to be chilling on those couches.