Emergency Mental Health Care: How Therapists of Color Contend with Racial Trauma

Scrolling social media is like scrolling the obituary of the United States for People of Color. I dread opening Instagram. Who is the next hashtag? Whose young Black or Brown or Asian face will appear smiling in memorials of art only to realize they’ve been murdered? These are just the daily highlights. Names quickly fade into history as new names appear on the registry of human lives killed by state violence and white supremacists. A mass murder of Asian Americans blends into the bloody backdrop – and it’s because a young Black man and a young Latino boy are the next victims of state violence recorded by their very own cameras. Their stories will be eclipsed by the supremacist attack on a FEDEX community of Sikh workers.

On April 30, in Bothell, Washington, John Huynh, a 29-year-old Asian American man, was stabbed in the heart.

Shane Nguyen, a Vietnamese man of 55 years old was brutally murdered on April 26th.

Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man, was killed by police while in his car.

Mario Gonzalez, a 26-year-old Latino man in Alameda, California was killed by police who kneeled on his back for over 5 minutes.

Anthony Alvarez was shot in the back by police on March 31, 2021 in Chicago – only blocks away from where he lived.

In our small world, inside our home, we are only slightly insulated from the racial violence. National news filters in as we try to balance staying aware of the world and shielding ourselves from the relentless hopelessness and despair the knowledge brings. My 13-year-old daughter produces art sketches regularly of political and racial violence, chronicling their stories in her art.

Two teenagers discuss politics, mixed with their latest non-crushes because how can they have any when they have such limited social interaction? At least that’s what they tell me. A young boy bounces off the walls, begging to play Minecraft and ride his bike. I listen to the banter, interrupted by unkindness, apologies, and more banter.

Sometimes friends text to check in, or send money for a meal. I do the same. We take turns caring for one another. The texts are getting harder to send, and the meals I could provide are endless. The violence is without end in sight.

When I graduated with my Masters in Counseling Psychology, I didn’t have an imagination for this caring advocacy. I knew I would stand in the margins as a Latina-Indigenous-German woman, but wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of ongoing, present trauma to myself and my family. It’s a different beast as a therapist. I provide care for others experiencing the same injustices, and public murders. It has meant a level of exhaustion and tiredness I won’t fully allow myself to know. As my clients seek care and comfort, I am often close to tears – and question my capacity, the training, the hard identity work I’ve done.

How do therapists of color – medics of the mental health field – prepare to advocate for healing and freedom for clients of color while both client and therapist are being assaulted by the same racial violence?

That subject wasn’t mentioned in any of my training. We heard about transference, countertransference, re- enactments, and the importance of continued personal work. I even completed trauma informed narrative certificate programs. Therapists of color and their clients of color face the same racial violence and trauma. We are in the same war.

The undoing of white supremacy means it shakes my own relationship to therapy, and it’s context. As shooting deaths of young boys who look like my son flash through my mind, I sip on cold water throughout the day to ground myself. When I look at my clients of color I wonder if there is a way to be safe. Words of wisdom (hopefully) come from my mouth, but I’m sure they aren’t enough to shield any of us from the next act of violence.

Images of rescue med soldiers on the landing of Normandy come to mind. They follow the initial surge of soldiers, dodging bullets, through the smoke and explosions, listening for the specific cries of the injured. They quickly assess: Are they bleeding? How badly? Do they need morphine? Can they recover? And, that all happens within seconds before the medic is off to answer the next cry of distress.

This is us.

As I step into therapy sessions, fresh stories of racial violence threaten to undo both myself and my clients of color. I resonate with the depression, despair, and hopelessness. The worries of my clients of color for their families and children are my worries too. These scary feelings surround us. And, I know there are other clients of color I won’t see on a given day that will be in pain as well. I must trust my own body and faith for stability in such deep ways as to not lose tenderness or fierceness.

Thank God there are other medics, too.

I imagine them running, on pace with me, dodging the temptation to give into despair. We may offer care to one or two folks today. We know our listening ear and deep belief of their experience will carry some weight in a world built around defending supremacy structures.

It won’t be perfect. Our messy personal lives will get in the way. Overwhelm, rage, and despair force us to take our own advice to rest, play, and unplug. Familiarity with the unknown will allow us to hold despair and hope.

The grief hasn’t come yet. It cannot. We are living the joy, love, rage, despair, faith, and hope moment by moment. The histories of the margins unite us around our shared hope for change – a faith anchored in a God who created both our differences and similarities. A God who invites us into kinship, expressed in culture, because God created humanity for relationship and encounter with one another.

As the jury returned the “guilty” verdicts for the murder of George Floyd, I barely exhaled before being pummeled by the death of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Another baby lost. There is deep longing – a groaning for Adam Toledo and Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant to be breathing alongside each of my four children.

I am living the unknown. In the unknown, my story has led me to know God. I trust the God who stands in this void, staring down the evil of racism, while guiding me and my colleagues. I grasp for hope in hopeless prayers. There is belonging in the dirt under my feet. There is space when I’m told there isn’t space. There is provision of kindred healers—other therapists standing at my side.