FIELD NOTES Ziyi Gu OCTOBER NOVEMBER | HOW TO FIND A THERAPIST WHO WORKS FOR YOU When you begin your search, first think about what you need. Then read therapist profiles carefully — this will include their location, specialties, pricing, pictures and languages. Pay attention to how they describe their approach and see if it makes sense to you. Nearly all therapists offer a short free consultation, and this is the time to ask detailed questions about their guiding beliefs and how they run their sessions. If you are looking for something specific, like to have sessions in another language or dive into LGBTQ identity, ask if that’s part of what they do. Don’t rush into things, and speak to a variety of practitioners. Lean towards the ones whose approach feels not just acceptable, but exciting, and who makes you feel most comfortable. Listen to your gut. Then, there’s nothing to do but try it out — it still might not work out, but knowing that from the outset helps manage expectations. Make race a part of the conversation from the start. If the practitioner is of a different race, ask if they feel capable of handling issues tied to your background or the racism you experience; if they’re from a similar background, point out how shared experience can help. There is also a growing movement of BIPOC practitioners whose practices are rooted in anti-racism and cultural awareness instead of “race neutrality.” I’m optimistic, cautiously, that one of them can help me feel pride and joy from the skin I’m in, instead of seeing it as something I need to be liberated from.—Judy predominantly white as well. Knowing that this field doesn’t mirror those who need mental health care, my situation shouldn’t come as a surprise. While working with my therapists over the years, the most prevailing piece of advice I received was essentially, be more white. None of them said it in those words, but they didn’t have to. I’m a first-generation immigrant from China. Unsurprisingly, some of my issues stem from a sense of displacement, or a tension between my family’s culture and the white world I move through. Instead of guiding me to find solutions that uniquely fit me, my therapists often attributed my problems to my cultural upbringing. Whether it was expectations my family had for me or the uneasiness I felt from my changing identity, many of them saw my Chineseness as something archaic and problematic that I needed to liberate myself from. A few of them also did not know what to say when I vented about the racism I encountered in my life, apart from, “that must be very difficult for you.” Aggressions and microaggressions were treated like freak incidents, instead of an external pattern that plummeted my mental health and at times put me in danger. I didn’t always get to choose my therapists — many people who go through work, school, or community centres to access free or affordable counselling are often assigned a practitioner. When I was doing my private search, the BIPOC therapists I queried were often booked solid. I’m not naïve — having the same background, race, or gender as your therapist isn’t a magic elixir. It doesn’t guarantee a better connection, or that they won’t make mistakes. What I know is it would sure save time (and thus, money). I’ve spent too many 50-minute sessions painting a picture of my cultural background instead of diving into why I was on the couch. Afterwards I leave unsatisfied, defeated by the crash course I just paid to give to my white therapist. You can’t heal if you’re constantly translating or code-switching. I longed for unspoken understanding that came from shared experience. I wished that I could dive into the problematic parts of my upbringing without trying to protect it from judgment at the same time. Most of my white therapists also weren’t aware how big of a leap it was for me to get professional help to begin with. Not only is the process arduous and unaffordable, many BIPOC come from communities where receiving counselling may be perceived as frivolous, or worse yet, shameful. In my own community, counselling is seen as an admission that there’s something really wrong with you or it’s something white people do when they’re both rich and bored. While working with my fourth therapist, I shared that I didn’t tell my family about therapy because of their dismissive attitude towards mental illness. Later on, at my lowest, I expressed an overwhelming fear that I would hurt myself. She looked at me from her armchair without changing her expression and said, “did you know families almost never recover from having a child commit suicide? Think about your family when you want to hurt yourself.” Even though her intention was to prevent harm, she had weaponized one of my deepest anxieties and used it against me. Each time I parted ways with a therapist, I really believed I would never find a practitioner that made me feel safe and heard. I would avoid therapy for months or years, knowing it was not sustainable. Self-reliance coupled with mental illness is a dangerous combination for BIPOC, especially during this precarious time — we are contending with a pandemic, loneliness, and a necessary but retraumatizing conversation on racial inequality. I need a therapist who gets me.