Carmen: Psychotherapy must be more inclusive of intersectional identities
Carmen Joanne Ablack is a psychotherapist and faculty member at the Gestalt Centre London. She is a member of the leadership group at the Black, African and Asian Therapist Network (BAATN). Here she gives her
Carmen Joanne Ablack is a psychotherapist and faculty member at the Gestalt Centre London. She is a member of the leadership group at the Black, African and Asian Therapist Network (BAATN). Here she gives her insight into how those working in psychotherapy must strive to be more inclusive and understanding of intersectional identities.
When I was starting out I was the first person of colour, and as far as I am aware, I was the first black woman to fully qualify in Body Psychotherapy (a form of therapy that incorporates treatment of the mind and body). It was so important for me to be in a challenging environment, and it was sometimes challenging for them having me there because I would speak up. One of the things I really respect was when one of the people who I had trained with met me years later and said, “You know, it was only after we had other students come through who also had a similar heritage and background that we realised some of the things we used to push you on were actually cultural.” The person speaking was very clear about saying, “we got that wrong.”
I was touched because it was obviously something they had been waiting to say to me and we hadn’t seen each other in a really long time. We met up and they said, “I really wanted to say this to you because I want you to know that we reflected on it and realised.” For me that was one of the moments where I felt my heart got repaired, where I felt met in a very different way.
Psychotherapy can never be ‘one size fits all’
One of the real issues facing the voluntary sector, particularly parts of the mental health sector supporting vulnerable groups, is a great deal of funding problems. If you bring in a ‘one size fits all’ therapy, for example the shortened version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you only validate a particular route where it becomes very difficult to meet the therapeutic needs of a diverse range of clients.
As a counsellor and woman of colour, you may feel under-acknowledged, that your cultural experiences or heritage are not being validated or attended to in the conveying of theory and practice. It is really important that you have the experience of being with a therapist who is trained to appreciate, understand, and work with you. They may be from your community, or they may be from other communities but have also done work around oppression, authority and power dynamics, and understanding identity processes.
It is so vital to have a space where at least some of your experiences are understood and given space. Some of your experiences are understood in terms of you identifying as a Black woman, a person of Afro-Caribbean heritage, as a Gay Black person, as a Gay Asian, as a Muslim woman with disabilities, and so forth. When it comes to women specifically I think it is about counteracting the tendency for women’s emotional and psychological experiences to not be completely validated.
In my understanding from the work I have done with my clients, there is an issue of attachment to where I am and the security of that base. It is vital whatever people are doing and however they personally develop, that they are in an environment where someone understands attachment to land, to a country, to my image and beliefs about that country – no matter how accurate they are or not. This has to be held with a certain amount of tenderness and appreciation. For example, I may have a young adult aged around 19 working with me, who has never see Jamaica but still identifies with it in several ways. I don’t have the right to dismiss that. I need to expand on that and say, “How is it to have this experience right now with me as you talk? And to be aware that we are sitting here in London talking about this…What is this like for you, right now?”
The rhetoric is different in different countries and communities within countries. That has to be understood. Let’s imagine if someone in your training has parents from Asian communities in Kenya, which is something you are not that familiar with. The person wants to talk both about their knowledge of Africa and their knowledge of the Asian culture within that, it can be very hard for people to work with intersectionality. It is very hard for people to appreciate, understand and allow for this. It’s about thinking, “can I sit with an open appreciation and knowledge of the fact that I am ignorant?” Of course I am ignorant about some things – personally that’s one thing that keeps me going to work! I want to understand myself and others through facing my ignorance and doing something about it in an open way, through self-reflective learning.
Belonging within the psychotherapist community
I wanted a home environment where I wasn’t in the minority. I wanted to hang out with other Black, African and Asian therapists who were working consciously with these issues, who have delved into them in their own ways, and where we could learn from each other through shared experiences. I wanted to really be part of a network that’s for both students and practitioners to have a space to be supported. BAATN has created forums where people of these communities and the majority population who are practitioners can come and talk about these issues, learn and share our experiences of teaching and so on. Ultimately it’s about dialogue, learning, experiencing, expanding my awareness, my understanding and for me personally it’s also about heart and soul.
Being a part of BAATN, I am not having continually to explain myself from scratch and I am not having to explain myself in relation to your experience. There is a shared experience of some kind and an acknowledgment that the black woman I am, is different to the black woman you might be. There is also an awareness of the subtleties of if I grew up in an environment where I was in the majority, but then I was moved as a very young child to where suddenly I am a minority. As a very different experience and context to someone who is born into an environment where they are a minority. You start off with different bases. It’s a very complex happening that systemically and existentially must be acknowledged in the therapy for it to be truly effective.
Advice for people of colour who want to be therapists
Be discerning. If you are a student or intending to go into training I strongly suggest you go to forums, support groups and workshops at BAATN and consider joining the student network there. Go to the places where the discussions happen. Allow yourself to be around a whole range of practitioners who have done all sorts of training, and who come together to look at progress in the main bodies and organisations, and what they are not managing to attend to yet. Remember they need you as much as you need them. Ask the hard questions about whether issues of diversity and intersectionality are addressed. Use the networks available to give you the inspiration, the support, the reassurance – you’re not the only one who’s asking the hard questions. Whatever your minority identity might be, it’s of utmost importance to be asking organisations these questions:
How many people (from these groups) do you have coming into the first year and how many graduate?
Are you doing enough to keep your trainees to the end?
Do you have graduates from these communities already?
Are there members of staff or supervisors from the community I come from or similar communities?
How is diversity included in your training?
How are issues of intersectionality attended to?
Are you an organisation that puts diversity training on “a weekend” rather than embedded in the courses from the outset?
Are diversity, equality and intersectionality at the centre of everything that you do? And if not, then why not?
It’s 2017, and these are completely valid questions to ask. These are the questions that are often avoided by organisations. This is about how an organisation can learn and develop around all the people it works with and it trains in order to become more inclusive.