The worldwide protest movement against police brutality isn't just about physical bravery—there's a mental health toll, one that affects black people in particular, whether its the trauma from an experience of police violence or the heightened anxiety of simply existing in the world. Organizations and individuals that already help people deal with such issues have rushed to meet the moment, including the Instagram account Decolonizing Therapy, run by Dr. Jennifer Mullan, a psychologist and consultant in New Jersey. In her professional practice, Mullan is a campus therapist—she uses Decolonizing Therapy, which just hit 100,000 followers, to shift the perspective of traditional mental healthcare in order to aid members of historically marginalized groups.
“Decolonizing therapy is looking at the entire individual,” she told GQ in an interview. “It's putting a focus on how trauma from oppression and the history of colonization has played a role in people's well-being and mental health. It’s realizing that we cannot just look at an individual without looking at what is happening systemically as well.”
GQ: You're doing work with the people on the front lines of these protests, of police brutality. How are you approaching helping them at this moment?
Dr. Jennifer Mullan: I think this is the time where we're starting to really politicize our therapy and radicalize our therapy. It's no longer us sitting at the desk, nodding with a paper and a pen—I'm helping people deal with the traumatic stress experience of being hit by a police officer, or chased by a police officer, or backed into a corner, you know, when they were running and trying to get away, or watching a friend get hit on the head with a baton, or tear gas getting shot into the crowd. We're dealing with the nightmares, the shakes, people are having panic attacks.
Some of the work is simply holding space, simply allowing a person to cry, to scream, whatever that's coming up for them. I'm finding myself doing a lot of breathing techniques with people, just true diaphragmatic breathing. But really, to be honest with you, this is triage. It's triage work.
Access to therapy is already really difficult for a lot of people, especially at this moment. Do you have mental health tips or suggestions for folks who are dealing with these emotions but aren't able to go to therapy?
What you are feeling is 150% valid. It’s okay to be overwhelmed, to feel rage, have your body shake, and feel like you can't control what's happening. It’s okay to feel like you can't go out of the house, and it's okay to feel like you want to attend every protest. This is a time, while all of this possible trauma is occurring, to regulate yourself, to root yourself, to connect yourself to a consistent practice, no matter how minute, no matter how small, even if it's 10 minutes before you walk out the door. Our pain is on display and that’s very vulnerable and that's really uncomfortable.
I would tell folks to start breathing exercises, pop onto YouTube, pull up a favorite meditation, listen to that for five or ten minutes before you get onto social media. If you’re able-bodied, do some jumping jacks, throw on some music and move around. If you're coming back from a protest or if you're watching anything on TV or online and you find yourself shaking and activated, allow yourself to re-regulate your body and your nervous system so that you can function. I know this sounds really simple, but these are the things that we all need to be focusing on right now: the moment by moment and step by step, so that we can breathe, we can eat, and we can be well enough to see this revolution through.
I’m a big fan of Ayana therapy–they have an app. There's a major focus on diversity and intersectionality, and there’s free therapy for frontline workers. Open Path Collective, also online, has a sliding scale of $30-$60 and therapists of all different identities, nationalities, and colors. Inclusive Therapists are amazing, and they’re also creating resources for therapists and learners on racial justice, LGBT equity, and more. The Institute for Human Identity in New York City is a nonprofit for psychotherapy and are providing a virtual support group for queer and trans people of color. The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, founded by Erica Woodland, is a healing justice organization that works to transform mental health for queer trans people of color and they're absolutely amazing. I've referred so many clients to them when I’m not able to take anyone else on.
There's global attention on the Black Lives Matter protests now, but black people have been talking about these issues for a long time. I've seen people talk about how painful that is, because while it’s great it’s also extremely difficult to process.
It feels like shit, can I say that? It feels like shit. There is a small part of many of us that feel, and I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s a small relief and yet at the same time it feels so abusive. It's like being in an abusive relationship with society. It’s sort of like well, great, now you have to catch up and you want me to slow down in order to teach you.
The threat on black bodies is so intense and prevalent it leads to automatic responses of pure threat, of feeling like we're in a threat state all the time. I want to remind folks out there that are living in black bodies to remember to take care of themselves, to remember that it's okay to ask for help, that we have been silent and silently suffering for so long and to remember to humanize yourself, your body, and your needs. We cannot be all things to all people at once and we have to take turns. It's okay to tap each other out, and then sprint, and then slow down and rest and recharge.
Are therapists ever taught in their education to consider these sorts of systemic traumas? If the very origin of pain is misunderstood, if that historical and racial context is ignored, then how does a therapist help someone heal properly?
The answer to that is: barely. I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, and I think probably since the murder of Trayvon Martin it’s more included in syllabi and things of that nature, but barely. I've had students be like, “Just tell me how to work with Asian people,” or “just tell me what works and what doesn't work in working with black people.” And it’s like, no, this isn’t going to help us actually move past this very singular, Eurocentric view of healing.
I’m not the only one who feels that we need to pull back. We have to look at how histories of trauma and how genocides have continued to pulverize people’s self-esteem, how they view themselves—which is pretty understandable given how many communities and people of color and groups of color have been treated historically.
How would a therapist who isn’t considering systemic racism, politics, history, intergenerational trauma help their patient? Can they get at the root of these things? Is it possible for them to help?
In my opinion, no. If you're working with a trans-identified African-American male and not talking about how it's open season on black trans bodies, if the therapist doesn't have the understanding of activism and politics around trans identity, if they don't understand how hard it’s to get your name changed, or get an update at the DMV, then we're not fully going to be able to be present and help that person. We also need to look at their intersecting identities, maybe they’re also a first generation student or they’re dealing with some sort of disability.
It seems like people often seek therapy for a single, traumatic stressor, perhaps the death of a spouse or a family member. But if you have race-based traumatic stress that's the result of a system in a society where there's new triggers, or never-ending triggers everyday that create chronic stress, how does someone even begin to process or approach that?
That's where I think that really understanding history is crucial, it’s going to help you better understand the person and the historical context of their pain. I have to shout out Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart who's talked a lot about historical grief, and the intergenerational trauma process, as well as Dr. Joy Degruy who’s written about post-traumatic slave syndrome. I think it’s crucial to understand the history and the context, and sometimes we're helping a person reconnect with that history. What does that person know about their history? How can we help them further connect to this? There's a lot of individuals of color that just feel very disconnected from our history because we've been taught and gaslighted into not feeling proud of our ancestors.
A lot of times as I start this process with my client they're already having nightmares or dreams. They're already experiencing things in their physical surroundings or their job and their relationships that are triggering, that are traumatic, that are reminding them of things. I ask them: Does what you're going through now feel similar to what your mother might have gone through when she came to this country? You start weaving together parts of a historical context that they may or may not be aware of.
In my own personal life, as well as professionally with the people that I serve, there’s such a relief that comes from someone speaking your language, energetically and psychologically. We're talking about and grieving things that our parents didn't have a chance to grieve because they were so worried about survival. It’s also essential to allow ourselves to go through our raging process. How can we safely expel some of this rage so that it doesn't end up killing us?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For a Black doctor, simply getting to the hospital feels like the most dangerous part.
Originally Appeared on GQ