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How to best support yourself, your colleagues, and your clients in the current racial climate

by Weilynn Chang

As clinicians who treat obsessive-compulsive and related disorders (OCRD), there are many things to manage in a therapy session. Internally, we are managing the usual clinical space: making sure we are attending to our client’s needs and goals, the therapeutic relationship, and managing our own internal emotional experiences. As OCRD-treating clinicians, we are also especially attuned to what we say and how we say it, and that we are being mindful about not providing reassurance. Internal emotional experiences can also include what you have going on in day-to-day life, stressors, and personal mental health-related concerns. It is an ever-present sentiment that especially in times of societal stress, therapists often must put aside their own feelings and experiences to help those around them. 

For some clinicians treating OCRD who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), there may be an additional layer to this experience, a layer in which someone may also have multiple additional internal experiences related to racism, discrimination, oppression, intersectionality, and intergenerational/collective trauma (i.e., race-based traumatic stress). Clinicians with these identities and experiences may be carrying the weight of all these layers within themselves, along with their clients’ experiences (especially when working with BIPOC clients). This is all on top of the usual clinical layers to navigate. May is Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month, which makes it especially important to amplify the experiences of AAPI clinicians. 

Not including various forms of racial trauma that came before it, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in hate, racism, and discrimination toward members of the AAPI community. There have been numerous anecdotal reports and news articles around how many Uber/Lyft drivers and riders have been discriminated against (e.g., cancelled rides, drivers not letting certain riders in their cars) due to having Asian-sounding names. According to a national report from the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, between mid-March of 2020 to the end of February of 2021, nearly 3,800 hate-related incidents have been reported. 68.1% of these reports were for verbal harassment, 20.5% for shunning, 11.1% for physical assault, and 8.5% for various violations of civil rights. Additionally, there have been two widely publicized mass shootings that have already occurred this year that targeted AAPI groups, such as the March 2021 shooting inside a spa in Atlanta, and the April 2021 shooting at a FedEx in Indianapolis, where multiple members of the Sikh community were killed. 

Statistics aside, the felt experiences of members of the AAPI community in the current charged racial climate is complex. Some AAPI individuals may be actively processing various racial and cultural experiences, some may not know where to begin or how to process these experiences, and others may not feel ready or up for doing so. Some individuals may experience a combination of this. What does it really mean to have been historically labeled as a “Model Minority?” What implications has this had in how prejudice, racism, and discrimination toward AAPI individuals have been largely minimized underrecognized and hidden?” How has all of this been internalized? What is “White proximity?” How do we continue to stand in solidarity and navigate allyship with other marginalized groups, while trying to stop hate toward the AAPI community? All these questions may be swirling around amid trying to process the escalation of AAPI related racism, discrimination and hate crimes. 

When something like a mass shooting of AAPI individuals occurs, members of the AAPI community, even those who are mental health clinicians themselves, may not know how to begin to process the event. As mentioned in the beginning, while working as OCRD-treating clinicians, there are already many factors to consider in our work with our clients. We may have back-to-back meetings, supervisions, didactics, and client appointments. We may also be taking extra emotional and cognitive energy to make sure we are not providing reassurance; and we may be using all our creative energy to come up with effective and individualized exposure ideas. By the end of the day, we can sometimes realize that we have not yet had time/space to process any news or racial trauma against people who look like us or have some of the same lived experiences that we do. It speaks volumes that many AAPI individuals are now fearing for their lives/lives of their family members and friends in public settings. A survey from April 2021 by the Pew Research Center reported that 32% of Asian-American adults expressed fear regarding being threatened or physically attacked, and 45% indicated that since the COVID-19 pandemic, they have experienced at least one racially based hate incident.

An additional area to be mindful of is to think about how best to serve our BIPOC clients during this time. It can feel tempting to avoid bringing up related topics in sessions or to avoid checking in with clients to determine if they need the time and space to process these events, due to feelings it may bring up for us. However, in this context, it can be important to identify and acknowledge what we are feeling, and to do our best to still act in line with values related to how we can best support our clients. This may also pose an interesting challenge for clinicians working with clients who may have responsibility/harm-related OCD or racism-themed OCD (i.e., a client worrying about saying something harmful to their clinician or worrying that perhaps they are racist or will say/do something discriminatory). It may also be a fruitful point of consideration, how this may intersect with various obsessive-compulsive symptoms (i.e., potentially increased COVID-19 related anxieties amongst individuals with OCD). 

That being said, in the midst of taking care of our clients, we must also remember to have self-compassion and care for our own mental health. This can take many forms and may involve doing one or a few things that bring you a bit of joy, safety, peace, and connection. This may include writing about any thoughts and feelings, talking through various thoughts/feelings out loud, connecting with others, standing in solidarity with various cultural groups within BIPOC, limiting news consumption, being safely vulnerable, deliberately setting aside time/space to process (incorporating self-care following this time), and setting emotional boundaries. Sometimes for your AAPI colleagues (and for yourself), when there is a second to pause and reflect, that is often when the emotions and gravity of the situation may hit. While limiting news content can help, some social media platforms have some helpful resources as well (some of these Instagram handles/web pages are provided below). 

Much like what we tell our clients with respect to the importance of acknowledging, accepting, and validating their emotions as they are, and meeting themselves where they are at, it might be helpful during this time to remind yourself of this, too. It may be helpful to remind yourself that you have been through quite a lot in the past year. With many unsettling events occurring one after the other, we as a society, as a BIPOC collective group, and as AAPI individuals have not had much time or space to process the gravity and meaning of all that has occurred. Our responsibilities, our day-to-day lives, and the systems at play do not stop, which has not given us much time or space to process and navigate this ever-challenging climate. It is okay if you do not know where to begin processing, or if you do not wish to process anything right now. It is also okay if you want to feel and express your emotions strongly. 

You can recognize that your fear and other emotions are valid, and that you can still find ways in the midst of all of this to act and live in line with your values. This may include more social connection, alone time, family bonding, advocacy/activism, amplification of pride for cultural traditions important to you, contribution to others, or learning. This may also include reaching out to your other AAPI colleagues to just connect, create a safe space, and process through some things together; it can be just to check in, explore AAPI identities, talk about unrelated things for a mental break, or express various forms of solidarity, especially given that the aforementioned survey from the Pew Research Center noted that only 32% of Asian-American survey respondents had someone express support for them. Taking care of yourself during times like this can allow you not only to be in a better head space overall, but also allow you to be able to fully attend to your clients’ experiences. 

Non-Exhaustive Resource List
@amaly.mindset for Muslims 
@aapaonline (Asian American Psychological Association) 

AAPI Mental Health Resources from The Mental Health Coalition
Graham-LoPresti et al., 2017: Mindfulness and Acceptance-Based Coping Approaches for Racism
Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center
AAPI Mental Health & Self-Care Resources

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