Addressing Racial Attitudes and Mistrust in Mental Health Counseling

The Complexity of Counseling African American Clients

“Since the mental health environment is a microcosm of the larger society, mental health professionals need to identify their own racial attitudes and be ready to address mistrust from African American clients concerned about being viewed through the lens of a stereotype (Jordan, Lovett, & Sweeton, 2012).” This quote, found on page 573 of a relevant study, encapsulates the multifaceted challenges faced by mental health professionals. It underscores the need for heightened self-awareness among these professionals and acknowledges the default perception that many minority groups, particularly African Americans, might have when entering therapy.

Safe Space in Counseling

This situation presents a unique challenge in counseling African Americans: providing a safe space for them to explore their feelings and thoughts without fear of being labeled as ‘racist’ or ‘prejudiced’. It brings to light the various triggers, fears, biases, and desires to connect, help, and support others, especially when attempting to be there for those of different races and ethnicities who face oppression. It highlights the importance of creating a safe space and reflects on how society’s spotlight on black struggles with racism, more than other oppressed populations, might indirectly enhance tensions between white and black populations.

Good Intentions With Bad Reactions

An instance is recalled where a therapist, in an attempt to be culturally competent, asked a black client how to make them feel more understood, only to have the client respond with anger, stating that it was not their role to educate the therapist. This situation illustrates how even well-intentioned efforts by white-passing individuals can be perceived as oppressive. There have been instances where black individuals have expressed discomfort with white people advocating for them, perceiving it as hijacking their movement or overshadowing their voices. This highlights how good intentions in the professional counseling context can quickly become emotionally unsafe for privileged non-black people.

Preparation for Counselors

Counselors must be prepared for such circumstances and perspectives, all while creating safe spaces for authentic sharing across divides, without shame or blame. The following guidance is suggested:

“Understand that power and privilege can affect counseling. During the first session, it may be beneficial to bring up the reaction of the client to the session. Make statements such as, “Sometimes clients feel uncomfortable working with a counselor of a different race. Would this be a problem for you?” Or, when the counselor is Black, “Clients have different responses to the race of their counselor, what does it mean to you to have a counselor who is also Black?” Be open if the client discusses any experiences with racism or discrimination, or if they indicate that race does not matter.”


The counseling of African American clients requires a nuanced understanding of the complexities surrounding racial attitudes and mistrust. Mental health professionals must navigate these challenges with sensitivity, awareness, and a commitment to creating a safe, inclusive space for all clients.

Source: American Journal of Community Psychology – Racial Differences in Beliefs About the Effectiveness and Necessity of Mental Health Treatment

This source discusses racial differences in beliefs about mental health treatment, particularly among African American clients, and supports the claims about the challenges mental health professionals face in addressing mistrust and racial attitudes in counseling African American clients.

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