When your parents think therapy is a "white people thing"

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Seeking therapy is hard enough as it is, but it can be even harder for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. We’re not only less likely to have access to mental healthcare, our communities — including those closest to us, like our parents — tend to stigmatize it. Those of us who live with our parents or depend on them financially might have no choice but to share our desire to see a therapist with them, which, honestly, can be pretty scary. We might worry that our BIPOC parents don’t believe in therapy, or that they’ll dismiss it as a “white people thing.”

These concerns are valid. In many of our cultures, there’s “this fear of being seen as ‘crazy,’” Estepha Francisque, a therapist in Oakland, tells Mic. On top of that, our cultures are often more collectivistic, “so whatever is going on with your children kind of reflects on you and vice-versa.” Our parents might see our need for therapy as a sign that they fell short in raising us, for instance, which can create a sense of shame in the family.

While talking about therapy with BIPOC parents who are less than accepting of mental healthcare requires a little strategy and foresight, it’s not impossible. Here’s how to decide whether sharing this part of your life with them is even a good idea and if so, how to approach the conversation.

Ask yourself: Do I really need to tell my parents?

Francisque suggests sharing your decision to start therapy on a “need-to-know” basis, even when it comes to those outside your family. He says if you financially depend on your parents, or use their insurance and worry they’ll see in the explanation of benefits — a summary of the health services your family received — that you went to therapy, then you’ll probably want to tell them.

The same might apply if you live with your parents, like I did when I signed up for therapy. Even if I was privileged enough to be able to cover the cost of therapy on my own, I preferred to be transparent with them about where I disappeared to for an hour every other week, especially because I had a hunch that they’d warm to the idea, even if it would take some explaining. (More on that later.)

Otherwise, you don’t need to disclose this information, Francisque says, especially if you anticipate it causing conflict. “It might not be helpful to your process to let someone know unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he explains.

Assess the situation

If you choose to tell your parents about therapy, Francisque suggests prefacing your conversation with something like, “I have something to tell you. I really want you to stay calm and keep an open mind about this.” What you say next will depend on whether you anticipate your parents disagreeing at first but coming around eventually, or digging their heels into the ground.

If the former, then it might help to have a more fundamental conversation about why therapy isn’t necessarily something to fear, Francisque explains, especially because “sometimes our parents would benefit from therapy.” Who knows? Your therapy journey could inspire theirs, he says.

If you’ve already started therapy, describe how it’s improved your life so far, which could win them over by making “that parental instinct kick in of wanting what’s really good for your child,” Francisque tells Mic. And if you haven’t started therapy, sell them on its potential to help you. He recommends showing them articles explaining how people typically benefit from therapy.

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Highlight practical gains that tend to make parents happy, Francisque says. He points to how his clients have landed promotions, better jobs, and more favorable living conditions after therapy. Basically, try pitching it as something that aligns with your parents’ goals and values, too. “In a lot of our cultures, career achievement is really important, so you may want to point out, ‘I am doing this because my depression, anxiety, whatever is making it really hard for me to stick it out in school or advance in my career,’” Francisque says.

When I approached my parents about therapy, I made it a point to mention how learning to manage my anxiety could help me perform better at work. Like I predicted, they didn’t totally understand my decision at first, but ultimately supported it, especially my mom, who noticed that it seemed to be improving my relationships with everyone else in my family — so that could be a benefit worth bringing up, too.

“Sometimes, it may be helpful to just point out the cultural and generational differences,” Francisque adds. If you’re a child of immigrants, he suggests explaining that the U.S. is different and more stressful in some ways than their countries of origin, and therapy is how people here cope. And if you’re not a child of immigrants, Francisque says you could point to how work is more stressful nowadays because of technology and the nature of our jobs.

I recognize that I'm really fortunate that my parents eventually embraced my choice — this certainly isn't the case for everyone. If your parents are on the stubborn side, Francisque suggests diving straight into how therapy can help you achieve shared goals — career advancement, marriage, and so on — “because you may feel or know that you only have one shot to really get on the same page.”

If you’re relying on them to pay for therapy, list multiple ways it could benefit you

In this scenario, “it’s more imperative on you to convince them,” Francisque says. “There’s a difference between just trying to get them to be ok and not give you a hard time, and then there’s convincing them to actively give you money or offer to pay for the therapy.”

To really make a case for covering the cost of therapy, prepare to list multiple benefits, Francisque says. You may need to spell them out more, he adds, as well as cite confidentiality laws to reassure them that your time in therapy won’t ruin your future job prospects or be made public in any way.

Avoid labels

If you’re seeking therapy primarily because you think you have major depression or another mental health condition, Francisque says the conversation will generally look the same, but cautions against naming your potential diagnosis. “That can be triggering for parents,” he explains. They might make the conversation about them and, again, interpret a label like “depression” or “anxiety” to mean that they somehow failed you as parents.

They might even respond with dismissiveness. “A lot of us have stories where somebody will say ‘I’m depressed,’” Francisque explains, “and the parents will be like, ‘Depression? What’s depression? I had to go uphill both ways to school every day…. You don’t know what depression is.”

Since you’re not required to share your condition with your parents, Francisque suggests describing it in terms of its effects on your life. Try telling them how hard it’s been to, say, wake up and go to class, finish work on time, or date. Explain that you need to talk to someone to see improvements in these facets of your life and meet your goals.

What to do if the conversation doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped

If your parents still don’t support your decision to seek therapy, but you don’t need their help to pay for it, Francisque says the easiest solution might just be to agree to disagree. He points out that chances are, it’s not the first time you’ve had to do so.

If you do rely financially on your parents, Francisque suggests finding therapists who take Medicaid or offer a sliding fee scale. Search Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, a directory of therapists who provide low-cost sessions, he says.

Francisque and his team at Forward Ethos Counseling have also published Depression: A Guidebook, which you can use if you think you might have depression, but therapy isn't an option right now. Plenty of other workbooks exist, too, like David Burns’s The Feeling Good Handbook, which my therapist recommended when I started seeing her for anxiety. Look for evidence-based resources created by licensed therapists or other mental health professionals, Francisque says, but keep in mind that “none of these are replacements for actual professional therapy and healthcare.”

Whatever the outcome of your conversation with your parents — if you decide to even have it — know that prioritizing your mental health is courageous and necessary. There are still ways to get support, even if you don’t have their blessing.