“I took my family to therapy in a bid to start an important conversation – here’s what happened”10/03/2022
Written by Vivienne Dovi
With Black women half as likely to seek medical assistance as white women for clinical depression, one woman shares how she is challenging this narrative and tells us what happened when she brought her family with her to therapy.
There is a serious stigma about mental health in the Black community. We often see ourselves as strong and ignore our mental health, associating treatment with personal weakness. Yet, according to the mental health charity Rethink, Black women are more likely to experience a common mental illness – such as anxiety or depression – in the UK than white people. It’s crucial to prioritise our mental health, but it is not always easy.
Negative views of African and Caribbean communities stemming from cultural ignorance and financial barriers can often prevent Black men and women from seeking treatment. Unfortunately, so can our own families.
Older generations have long held the stigma we are familiar with and we’ve witnessed how they attach mental health to shame and embarrassment. According to research by the Maya Centre, Black women are half as likely to seek medical assistance as white women for clinical depression, emphasising that we are used tgo watching our loved ones hide their problems from the outside world and we’ve grown used to doing the same ourselves.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, Black women are increasingly viewing mental health as an urgent need. However, a number of mental health problems start when we are much younger, but for many Black women, raising these issues is unheard of because we’re supposed to respect our elders and never challenge them. So how can we rectify problems that involve them when talking about therapy is taboo?
Natasha*, 28, shares with Stylist her experience of doing what many would be afraid to do.
Natasha is of Caribbean heritage and lives in south London with her mum, dad, and younger brother. She decided to organise therapy for her family four years ago, mainly due to issues from her childhood.
“I’ve always had issues with my family; I think everyone does,” says Natasha. “Growing up, I felt like I raised my younger brother because my parents were first-generation [immigrants] and always working.
“My family life wasn’t great either. There were arguments, emotional havoc and physical violence. I’m also the middle child, so I felt overlooked while trying to be the ‘good’ child while my older sister acted out by running away and my brother was naughty.
“I was depressed. I knew something was wrong; I just didn’t know what. I feel that my parents let me down. Then I started to see some telltale signs that my brother had the same feelings, so I stepped in for my brother where my parents didn’t step in for me.”
Involving her parents in the healing process was essential to Natasha because she was still living under their roof. “If you still have to live with your parents, you’ll keep opening your wounds. My parents were the root of the issue, so we needed to deal with the root cause.
“I also felt all of us needed a safe space, with an outside source, to better understand what we were individually going through in order to heal.”
Natasha touches on the difference between the Black community and other cultures: since our parents were strong, we were also expected to be, she says. The differences between how they grew up in their respective countries and how we grew up in the UK means they often can’t relate to us. “It’s as if they think that if you’re not bleeding, you’re not dying. To them, there’s no such thing as depression. You’ll be fine; just smile and go to work. So when I pointed out things that hurt me, they trivialised them and didn’t understand where I was coming from. They thought I was crazy.”
Natasha describes the first therapy session as an absolute nightmare. Her parents would talk but not listen. “My dad wanted to lead the conversation but dismissed the therapist’s comments because she disagreed with him. He also didn’t believe our views. He would laugh and roll his eyes but ask why I was saying certain things in front of strangers. My parents still believe that what happens in the house should stay in the house, so the session wasn’t great. We had many arguments afterwards.
“The second and third sessions were a bit better because I think we started to get used to the idea that this ‘stranger’ is here and trying to help us. My brother eventually became more comfortable and was willing to speak about how he saw things.”
Natasha decided to drop out after the fourth session because her parents were performing in the sessions. Nothing was changing. “On a single day, everything was fine. But the same behaviours would rear their head throughout the week.”
Unfortunately, the aftermath of family therapy wasn’t positive. “Things are worse than before, so I can’t say that family therapy helped much. The sessions unearthed everything, but since my parents weren’t being truthful, the therapist couldn’t help in the way she needed to.
“I would try to set boundaries, but my Caribbean parents wouldn’t respect them. I wouldn’t bother taking my parents to therapy again – I just don’t see the point.”
Instead Natasha is focusing on her own therapy. “I started individual sessions instead, which were pretty useful in helping me understand my trauma.”
We turned to Davina Dobbs, therapist, MBACP and founder of Time in Counselling, to unpack the outcome of Natasha’s sessions. “Natasha’s struggle is a familiar feeling many children in the African and Caribbean community experience. There is unresolved trauma and the stigma associated with therapy can make it difficult at the best of times.
“When combined with the fact that much of the work required is from childhood trauma, so there is a strong need to explore family and parental dynamics, the lack of involvement from parents can make it extremely difficult to move forward fully. This lack of involvement often stems from a hierarchical dynamic, with the parent often feeling they are at the top of the pyramid and therefore don’t need to take accountability. The family unit often suffers as a result.”
From Davina’s perspective, there are practical steps for healing from family trauma. “Setting boundaries for yourself will help to eliminate repeat harmful patterns of behaviour from individuals who may have hurt you in the past.
“Practising mindfulness or meditation is a method that allows you to live in the moment and pay to attend to each moment. It enables you to stay present with your current thoughts and feeling and assess how things are for you physically. You could also use a journal to record your thoughts and feelings throughout the day so you can revisit your emotions and explore any correlations.
“Don’t forget to take time to pause and celebrate your big and small wins. Allowing yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment can lead to greater acceptance of yourself and your circumstances.”
Although the healing process is hard, Davina emphasises that there is hope. “The first step to healing can feel like the hardest step to take, but imagine slowly unwrapping a layer of wrapping paper from a gift that you really wanted for a long time. You had to be patient while unwrapping it because it is so precious and priceless to you, but eventually, you will know you get to see the gift.
“That is how healing feels. With each unwrapping, you’ll be provided with a deeper level of understanding.”
If you want therapy, you can reach out to therapy services such as BAATN, Black Minds Matter or consider a support group via Psychology Today.
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