Trans people of color and the mental health effects of violence, COVID and politics: ‘We’re talking about collective trauma’

Erica Woodland, founder of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network. (Photo courtesy of Erica Woodland)
Erica Woodland, founder of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network. (Photo courtesy of Erica Woodland)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many professionals who are focused on serving some of the country’s most marginalized populations — and on changing the field of mental health while they’re at it. Read all the interviews here.

Erica Woodland

Therapist and founder of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, a mental-health resource and healing justice organization since 2016.

How have you seen the mental health of LGBTQ people of color impacted by recent events, including record murders of transgender people and the proliferation of anti-trans bills in many states?

I think that question in 2021 feels different than it did even in 2019: Violence against trans people of color has been increasing, and Trump clearly didn’t help that situation. Then, when you add COVID and the ways that death and illness and crisis have been accelerating, and how that impacts trans people of color, “exhausted” doesn’t even get to it — to the weariness of constantly having to respond to violence and to the accumulation of that violence on our sense of well-being and belonging. … There’s depression, anxiety, yes. But we’re talking about collective trauma and whole communities struggling with some level of PTSD.

April was such a terrible month: We saw the Chauvin trial, knowing that whatever the outcome, George Floyd is not here. The murders of children have been endless, then the anti-trans bills … we have people dying prematurely. … Then there are the people being taken out by violence. … The conditions are creating a lot more stress. All the things that were true before are exacerbated now. And a lot of the QTBIPOC [queer, trans, Black, indigenous people of color] therapists are full. … If you waited until 2020 to decide to start therapy, you actually have had a bit more options because people went virtual. But we’re getting emails where people say, “I’ve reached out to 100 therapists, please help me.”

How did your organization come to be?

I started it because I had been doing work as a clinician and activist. It quickly evolved into a network of therapists and wellness providers. Because what we know to be true is that most of us don’t even have access to therapy — and if we do, we don’t have access to therapists from our communities. And so all marginalized communities have had to create ecosystems of care, which are often just networks of support. I’ve experienced a lot of white supremacy and queer and transphobia in the field. … A lot of mainstream mental health work is really outdated and problematic…

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Also, for advocacy to go anywhere, you need to make sure people have access to basic human needs and get treated with dignity and respect. [At one point] I was doing clinical social work and also working with a national movement justice organization, and I just was sick of working with queer organizations of color — people who were leading movements — who would open up to me about their desire to go to therapy but instead were living every day with a high-level mental crisis. So, we created a directory, and as soon as it was out in the world, people were asking for where to go to find it. … And we’re still the only directory with only QTBIPOC providers in it … some others also include ally clinicians.

Speaking of spiritual practices and therapy, can you speak to this idea of mental health being colonized?

The sad thing about our current reality is that the mainstream field of mental health has actually appropriated a lot of traditions from communities of color — mindfulness is from ancient Buddhist practice, for example, but then you see the sanitizing and decontextualizing of it, and then the bringing of it into therapy as if it originated there. The work is spiritual. What are the practices across time that have helped people heal from trauma, grief and crisis? That was always held in a spiritual container.

So we are a healing justice organization, not a mental health organization … healing is our birthright, and there are lots of different ways to heal. And therapy is one, but it can be problematic, and it’s not the be all end all. … In my own healing journey, it’s sometimes been wrong, because I can talk circles around the therapist, and my body healer has been more helpful a lot of the time.

It’s a structural thing: If you look at the history of psychiatry — and for communities of color, women, gender nonconforming people, that field has been used to pathologize us, and “other” us, and justify certain treatments, like forced hospitalization, sterilization, incarceration. … “Drapetomania,” for example, was the name of the mental health condition given to enslaved Africans who wanted freedom, and the treatment was lashing. So this was structural … and by entering the structure, you’re basically colluding with it. … I know I can’t work inside a system — I want to flip tables, so I should not work at institutions. But for many, doing work inside that system is transforming — it’s slower, but people are activating around it. That’s what makes [our organization] different: We’re trying to figure out how to support practitioners to change the system — and also create alternative systems.

Is that why understanding intergenerational trauma is so important?

It’s been amazing to see [in my small private practice] how many people are actively working on intergenerational trauma in their therapy … oftentimes because of their relationship with families of origin, which is complicated, and the way that the intergenerational trauma piece [helps] provide more context to explain our current suffering. The more we do that, the more we depathologize our response to tragedy. Because while the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] just looks at level of symptoms — and here’s the meds, here’s the therapist — if you bring in intergenerational trauma, you realize oh, there’s a pattern with trauma or suicidology … and oftentimes it’s more complicated than genetic. And that context gives us so much opportunity: When we have awareness of these patterns, that means we’re able to change them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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