Anti-Racism in Counselling: A Call to Action
Christine Liu, Renew Volunteer
My experiences of therapeutic counselling left many things to be desired. Over the past 4 years, I had seen many different therapists and tried my best to engage, be an open book with the counsellor, do my absolute best to improve my mental health, but things didn’t seem get better.
I started to believe that therapy just didn’t work for me. That sentiment may seem to cement stigmas surrounding counselling, but rather, revealed to me a very valid criticism. As an Asian individual, many of my problems are deeply intertwined with trauma from being othered in a white-majority population, but the counsellors I interacted with never seemed to have more than a surface-level understanding of oppression.
Recently, at the age of 18, I connected with my BAME peers about this, and many of them deeply resonated with my experience. While sometimes there simply is a poor match between the client and the counsellor, it appeared unusual that none of us had felt fully understood when working with counsellors, especially those of White British backgrounds.
The multicultural and diverse society of Britain demands the role of a counsellor to go beyond the vague brief of ‘emotional support’. Counsellors are able challenge systemic inequalities by helping clients from non-White British backgrounds navigate the challenges they face. Education on othering, intersectionality, and anti-oppressive practice are essential to improving counselling, so that counsellors can become a better match for their client, regardless of their background.
People of BAME heritage experience higher rates of mental ill-health, face a range of barriers when accessing counselling, and have reported poorer treatment outcomes than individuals who identify as White British.
- 84% of BAME individuals believe that the UK is very or somewhat racist
- 1 in 3 people said they had faced stigma and/or discrimination from a healthcare professional while getting support for their mental health
- Black people are 4 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act
These disparities are linked to experiences of racism, wealth inequalities and stigma surrounding mental health. It is absolutely vital to understand that this is not the fault of a couple ‘bad apples’ or incompetent professionals; there are systemic inequalities in the development of therapeutic techniques and training.
The majority of psychological research uses participants from mostly western, industrialised, rich and democratic societies (dubbed the WEIRD phenomenon), who only make up 5% of the world’s population. Counselling techniques and therapeutic modalities, therefore, are not always representative of the diversity present in society today. For example, when using individualistic models of distress, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it can be difficult to identify systemic oppression as the cause of distress, since it makes sense of the distress within the person’s individual psyche, as opposed to modalities such as liberation psychology which emphasise collective healing. Advocating for more representative, intersectional evidence and research is vital to delivering better services.
Anti-racism in counselling involves actively opposing the policies, practices and beliefs that perpetuate inequality, since they contribute to the systemic racism that harms BAME clients. By creating a safe and equitable space for each client, you are pushing back against these structures to enable people to live happier lives. Here are some useful skills that can aid you in this context
Each person is inherently unique, therefore should be approached with curiosity and compassion. With this, comes the realisation that people of different backgrounds traverse through life very differently and have faced different challenges. Therapeutic counsellors should be sensitive to the cultural nuances that can affect a client’s mental health and tailor their approach accordingly to create client-centred care.
Cultural competency is a critical aspect of counselling and it involved being aware of, respecting and valuing client’s values, beliefs and practices, as well as recognising the impact of having a second culture on mental health. For example, a second-generation UK migrant may find it difficult to feel connected to both their heritage and British culture.
Building rapport with a client is important in making them feel that they are able to open up about their differences to you. Counsellors should avoid making assumptions based on a client’s cultural identity, especially when they do not know much about that culture.
“Sometimes I feel like the phrase ‘I am white so I won’t understand your experiences but…’ can be used in a tokenistic way, and it comes up the moment I mention racial trauma. I think it’d be beneficial for counsellors to really engage and understand without that phrase being the most important part of their response” – An Anonymous Client
Cultural competency and anti-racism work not only enhances the likelihood of a positive experience for BAME clients, but also broadens one’s understanding of the diversity of human experiences, benefiting all clients.
Some negative experiences may appear non-malicious to a White British therapist who has not had the same experiences as a BAME client. While it is true that people can ‘project’ their insecurities onto others, counsellors should be careful not to interpret this as ‘mindreading’, and should remember to prioritise their client’s emotional experience, and trust that they have interpreted the situation correctly.
Microaggressions are commonplace verbal, behavioural or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate a negative attitude or stereotype toward marginalized groups
Having these experiences validated can be extremely empowering, since they are often overlooked in favour of the aggressor’s intention. Due to the fact that racism is perpetuated systemically, it should come as no surprise that people express their biases without realising it, and these aggressions can be very hurtful. Supporting the client is a way of pushing back against these society-wide prejudices, and can make the client feel heard, valued and respected after a violating incident.
Being an anti-racist therapeutic counsellor extends beyond individual therapy sessions. It involves advocacy and education to challenge systemic racism – counsellors can use their expertise to raise awareness about racial inequalities, advocate for policies that promote equity, and engage in community initiatives aimed at combatting racism.
Dr Dwight Turner is a Black educator, activist and psychotherapist who facilitates opportunities such as workshops, conference presentations and his own blog. He recommends these resources for counsellors wishing to explore advocacy work, essential components of “breaking the chains of white therapy” (Dr Dwight Turner, 2021)
Counselling is a challenging occupation that requires self awareness, ongoing self-reflection and challenging your own biases. Navigating conversations about racial trauma, like many other challenging life events, can be difficult, but the opportunity for positive impact is huge.
The number of BAME individuals that pursue counselling as a profession is disproportionately low, with 88.2% of the clinical psychology workforce in England identifying as White British as of 2015, according to the British Psychological Society.
many BAME clients may feel more comfortable speaking to a BAME counsellor. This is due to three main reasons:
- Adverse experiences of racism are often perpetrated by White people themselves, whether knowingly or unknowingly (as a microaggression) so clients may feel apprehensive and need more time to build up trust with a White counsellor
- BAME individuals are more likely to have personal experience with racism, so clients feel that they are more likely to be faced with empathy, rather than sympathy. Empathy enables clients to feel a sense of solidarity against the oppression that they face.
- BAME counsellors may have faced discrimination themselves, so clients do not feel they need to explain everything in lots of depth in order to be understood.
Organisations such as the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network offer mentorships to individuals of Black, African, Asian and Caribbean heritage who are in counselling or psychotherapy training, as well as many other resources for counsellors of all backgrounds. These kinds of initiatives are vital in making counselling a representative profession, and I highly recommend exploring their website.
Racism is a prolific problem in British society today, and helping BAME individuals cope with their experiences can leave a profound positive impact on their lives. Rather than briefly acknowledging that the client will have different experience to a White British person, counsellors should seek to educate themselves on the experiences of marginalised individuals, to truly commit to being anti-racist.
Renew is passionate about making people feel safe and empowered, and we are recruiting BAME individuals to train at Renew to aid us in this mission. We also offer CPD workshops free of charge to our counsellors, so keep an eye on the schedule over the coming months.
Click here to explore the different counselling courses that we offer at Renew.