Black Americans suffer most from racial trauma, but few counselors are trained to treat it

“People of color don’t feel safe to come to therapy."

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Racism can often lead to trauma for people of color — a reality that research has confirmed time and time again. But few studies have assessed the ability of counselors to treat that trauma.

“With America’s climate in the current day and time and all of the instances of oppression and discrimination and hate crimes … I was curious,” said Carrie Hemmings, an assistant professor at Auburn University at Montgomery. “Are counselors really addressing this issue?”

Hemmings co-authored a recent study, published in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development this month, that found that the majority of counselors in the United States are not prepared to identify and treat race-based trauma, which often results from racial harassment, discrimination, violence, or experiencing institutional racism.

In addition to this lack of preparation, the study highlighted existing research pointing to a general shortage of professional training opportunities for understanding and treating race-based trauma.


“Counseling is a field where we are continually learning and developing,” Hemmings told ThinkProgress, adding that many counselors are teaching themselves about race-based trauma. “We are in the process of making advancements and treating different situations.”

Of the 106 counselors surveyed in the study, 75 reported that they had worked with clients who experienced some form of race-based trauma. Only 35 participants said they had received training to identify race-based trauma and 20 reported that they had received training to treat race-based trauma.

This is especially problematic for black Americans, who endure more mental health problems as a result of overt racial discrimination, perceived racism, and microaggressions, which are subtle degradations of marginalized people. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, black people suffer from higher levels of stress, anxiety, and emotional trauma than white people. According to the study, the extreme consequences of prolonged exposure to racism include suicide, displaced hostility, and substance abuse.

Social and health care disparities exacerbate this problem, the study said. People of color are “less likely to have health insurance, are more likely to experience racist attitudes and discrimination among providers, and are more likely to experience unequal access to quality health care.”

Not only are people of color disproportionately affected by race-based trauma, they rarely seek counseling, said Audra Lee, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Pittsburgh.


“People of color don’t feel safe to come to therapy largely because they don’t feel they can find people who can relate to their experience,” Lee told ThinkProgress.

She said she would often urge those suffering from trauma to seek therapy, “but what I didn’t account for was a lot of clinicians would not be helpful … So it became more of a conversation of advocacy — advocating for yourself in the mental health field.”

The study’s authors, Hemmings and Amanda M. Evans, an associate professor at Auburn University, recommended that counselors be proactive in providing “multiculturally competent care” to people of color who experience race-based trauma. “These actions include confronting racism; including race-conscious curricula; incorporating models, theories, and methodologies; including training beyond academia; and supporting additional racism-related research.”

Hemmings said it was also important to encourage more individuals of color to pursue the field of therapy, and for white white counselors to approach the topic of race more often.

“It’s important for white counselors to … not be afraid of [race], not be afraid that they’re going to say the wrong thing,” she said.

Even with additional training, Lee said, the work of counselors in educating themselves on race-based trauma is never over.


“You never just get it,” Lee said. “It’s a constant process.of being in a relationship with people who are different from you.”

Lee emphasized the importance of counselors to “stay curious” and said she often conducts trainings and lectures for counselors to this end.

“I have had really great success with working with clinicians and counselors. I have also seen clinicians and counselors get really defensive,” she said. “But I believe that defensiveness is an active part of growth.”