Conference: Black Trauma in the Therapy Room

BME Voices Talk Mental Health Trauma Conference 2020

This Saturday I attended Trauma Conference 2020 – Black Trauma: When it presents in the therapy room. This excellent online event was put on by BME Voices Talk Mental Health.

The speakers were Dr Dwight Turner (psychotherapist, academic, and forthcoming author), Dr Keren Yeboah (psychologist and author of the study ‘Power and the ‘hidden self’: reimagining the therapeutic use of power in work with Black people diagnosed with psychosis’), Ebinehita Iyere (youth practitioner working with young people affected by the youth justice system), Sharon Frazer-Carroll (occupational therapist, organisational expert and founder of Time To Talk Black), and Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga (psychotherapist, academic, and author).

A note on trauma

Trauma is a spectrum, not a binary. Despite the best efforts of many, society as a whole is only just beginning to comprehend the multifarious nature of trauma, what trauma means for people individually and collectively, and the different ways it can manifest. Many now accept that you don’t have to be a combat veteran, refugee, or incest survivor to be traumatised and to experience PTSD or CPTSD, and that trauma in your ancestry is likely to manifest in the present.

It’s also more understood that ‘minor’ daily incidents, known as microaggressions, can cumulatively cause a high level of distress in a person. And that ongoing fear of threat can cause as much harm as an actual incident. But some, especially those with power, may find it harder to accept that certain populations experience this more than others. The challenge comes when these same people realise that it is they themselves who are causing the harm. Without deep reflection, it is hard to own our acts and do the work.

The multiple impacts of systemic inequality

At the conference every speaker, in different ways, outlined the systemic construct of Whiteness and Blackness (the racial complex that binds us) and its impact, through racism, on Black lives. We heard about trauma responses to racism and the impact on mental and physical health, including internalised racism (or our ‘internalised supremacist’), and how quickly you lose touch with your humanity when you are forced to adapt to a culture that someone else has created.

Gaslighting and double standards

We heard about the harms done by the White-constructed mental health system to Black patients with psychosis, (for example being criminalised on entering the mental health system, and having anger mislabelled as a pathology) and the constant location of issues solely within the Black community, and the minimisation of the racism that creates this.

Ancestral trauma held in the unconscious

We had an interactive discussion about whether Black trauma exists, and whether therapists should undertake specific training about it. We were reminded that in 2020 the (White) world is waking up to a reality that many have already lived with for a long time, and that White therapists need to do more self-reflection and investigation. The silence of early lockdown ’emphasised the noise in peoples’ heads’ – the ancestral trauma, bursting to speak, that is so often buried in the unconscious.

Examining racism in supervision and training

We heard about the process of unmasking racism in clinical supervision, and the reminder that Black therapists are impacted by racial trauma while also hearing about it, and yet sometimes feel unable to name racism to a White supervisor. And when a Black student is expected to educate the rest of the students in the room, and do the labour of caretaking White fragility, (and keep their own feelings in check to protect others as well as themselves within a White system), they cannot give time to their own development.

The whiteness of the therapy world

Self-care

For the last hour of the conference, the primary theme in the panel discussion was self-care. When Black therapists speak about interaction with White colleagues, the word ‘exhaustion’ quickly comes up. There will be times when Black therapists cannot be with White friends and colleagues, because of this exhaustion, rage, and hurt. White people cannot expect to be rescued from this – ‘It’s not about you’. One speaker spoke of ‘trying not to be drawn into other peoples’ awakenings.’ Another quoted: ‘Just because we are in the same storm, does not mean that we are in the same boat.’ White therapists are advised to read, especially outside therapy subjects, and process shame and guilt by finding a place where it’s okay to talk.

Challenging course leaders

How do Black trainees stand up and challenge their course leaders? One speaker sent their comments to all their leaders and fellow students, and spoke out on social media, adding: ‘Get your message right and don’t endanger yourself.’ It is important to create Black spaces if there were none previously. But ‘realise you can’t do it all.’

Beyond eurocentric trainings

In the Q&A, someone asked: ‘Where are the Black and Asian modalities?’ The response came: ‘Here we are!’ The teachers, supervisors, and learnings are already here! They need to be listened to, and training organisations need their wisdom and experience in order to build equality-based and culturally competent trainings from the ground up. There are plenty of people and organisations out there who can help: Kaemotherapy, Race Reflections, Me & White Supremacy, Radical Therapist Network, Resmaa Menakem, and others can all contribute to new forms of training that prove the organisations truly value every student equally.

When I attended the inaugural BME Voices Talk Mental Health conference back in October 2018, I was surprised to see so few other White therapists there, perhaps 10% of the delegates. This was an indication of the work we have to do to make counselling and psychotherapy truly reflective of all populations, in respect of both therapists and clients. However, after the events of 2020, and the increasing profile of Black Lives Matter, I suspect this year the numbers were greater.

There is a long way to go

Every speaker had something positive to say about how we might go forward. But it was also clear that, in many ways, things have barely changed in 30 years. There are of course many individuals of all backgrounds desiring change in the mental health system and psychotherapy – but the process is slow. And, unfortunately, it is not clear that organisations are truly listening. One major piece of evidence of this is the ScopEd project, a proposed framework for a hierarchical classification of therapists, and promotion of particular member organisations. ScopEd was not mentioned at the conference (as I recall), but I feel it fits strongly with the theme.

A missed opportunity

This is not the post to go into detail about this, but I will describe it in brief. There was an opportunity for some real systemic thinking to address the huge missing pieces currently within mainstream therapy trainings, (race, racism and White supremacy being one of the most significant, but not the only one). Instead a top-down medical and analytic model is being proposed, and many counsellors may be put out of business by being deemed incapable of taking paid work. This hierarchical structure does nothing to address racism, misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, classism or ableism, and does not seem to address systemic factors at all, even though they affect all of us every single day, therapist or client. It also doesn’t address the access issues that prevent so many people (particularly Black, and working class) from training as therapists in the first place. While I would agree that training standards do need to be addressed, it is the counsellors who are bearing the brunt of this project, rather than the training organisations who trained them.

In his book How to be an antiracist, Ibram X Kendi states, over and over again, that it is racist policies that need to change, and that only working towards anti-racist policy will have meaningful impact. Sadly it feels as if this is being played out, however unintentionally, in the counselling world. Of course, good intentions mean nothing without deep reflection on the impacts of our actions.

I am very grateful to all the conference speakers for sharing so much, and to Helen George, founder of BME Voices Talk Mental Health, and co-host Leoni Cachia. I’m looking foward to the next one already.


Pink Therapy’s Sex Work and Psychotherapy Conference – history in the making

I have just spent an extraordinary two days at the Pink Therapy ‘Sex Works!’ conference, about the intersection of mental health and sexuality professionals.

Every year the Pink Therapy conference covers a different GSRD (Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity) topic. Created by Pink Therapy founder Dominic Davies, in recent years they have featured gay men, trans, bisexuality, and kink, non-monogamies and other sexualities/orientations beyond LGBTQ. 

The purpose of the Sex Works! conference was multiple: to look at sex worker mental health and how the system could better support sex workers; to look at the experience of psychotherapists/counsellors (and trainees) who are also sex workers; and to look at the various forms of somatic sexology that may include genital touch, and how a dual trained counsellor/somatic sexologist may be protected within the psychotherapy system; and the ethical issues relating to all the above.  

For clarity: somatic sexology can include sex coaching, sexological bodywork, somatic sex education, some tantric practice, and sex surrogacy.

We heard about: busting some of the myths around sex work, sexual services for people with disabilities in Australia, somatic sexology, and a large scale research study of sex worker mental health. Sex surrogacy, conscious kink, Urban Tantra and Somatic Sex Education 101. We heard about ethical frameworks from a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) perspective and from a highly experienced long-term member of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and about the Association of Somatic and Integrative Sexologists (ASIS). Also sex coaching for sex therapists. To round off the second day, there was a panel discussion about ethics (that included a representative from the Psychotherapy and Counselling Union (PCU) and the College of Sex and Relationship Therapists (COSRT)), which was supposed to be about how to protect dual-trained therapists, but turned out rather differently. 

The conference was a potent reminder of the enormous variety of what might be called sexuality work. As well as an opportunity to speak to dual-trained practitioners, there was a lot of vital, and courageous, testimony from speakers who are both psychotherapists and sex workers.

What became rapidly clear was just how badly people who do sex work can be treated as trainees of psychotherapy – and this mirrors the experience that many sex workers have as clients trying to access counselling.

Many sex workers are not out to their therapists, because it is just not worth it, due to the judgements and pathologisation they are likely to experience. Importantly, very often the reason someone might want to go for therapy has nothing to do with their life in sex work, but they need to know they won’t have to endure projections, rescue or confused hostility.

The bottom line is that therapy clients who do sex work are often being harmed – by therapy.

What was especially disappointing was the way the therapy registration bodies represented, BACP and COSRT – (sadly we lost the official UKCP representative at the last minute) – seemed to have provided those speaking with very little relevant research and opinions for the conference, even though they were invited to participate six months ago. Contrast this with how, after the presenter of the session that preceded the final panel discussion was absent at the last minute, two psychotherapist sex workers created an excellent workshop at two minutes’ notice.

It was particularly saddening to see how the psychotherapy establishment continues to conflate sex work with abuse.

It seemed impossible to discuss the ethics of being a dual trained practitioner, or a sex worker being a psychotherapist, without the discussion leaning further and further into complaints, abuse, and the nebulous and highly politicised concept of ‘disrepute’. It was pointed out that sex work is actually legal in the UK – and yet there is a persistent lack of clarity on this in the psychotherapy world.  This is part of a bigger picture, of a generalised lack of understanding of GSRD clients and identities that is consistently displayed in mainstream psychotherapy and, as a consequence, in training organisations. I find this issue especially disturbing.

From the many personal stories I have heard, a trainee therapist with a minority identity may well be expected to educate their peers about this identity, and may also endure endless questioning, assumptions, microaggressions and invalidating ‘debate’, even from tutors. The lack of understanding of minority stress, in organisations supposedly training people in how to support others, and how it can contribute to trauma, is mind boggling.

Of course, the excuse might be that by marginalising sex workers and sexuality practitioners, they are simply mirroring public life and the media.

Sexual pleasure in all but its most regimented, prescribed forms is othered and kept in darkness in a society where attention is not paid to sexual competence, and we are educated neither in negotiation nor consent, let alone in giving attention to our true desires. Apparently there is a perfect way to be a human, and that is to be monogamous, vanilla, cisgender and heterosexual, and the further away you go from that, the more deviant and in need of fixing you are. If you sell sex and do therapeutic or educational sexual touch, you are seen as almost beyond repair.

Counselling students who do sex work may be told that there are grey areas that may cause them to fail their course. This despite that, as was pointed out repeatedly, one of the skillsets necessary to survive as a sex worker – (intuition and trusting your gut, negotiation, establishing consent and boundaries, working with the client’s needs) – goes far beyond anything taught on counselling courses.

There was a lot of anger in the room towards the end, particularly when one panel member suggested the audience give them more information. It was pointed out that marginalised groups get very tired of doing the labour of explaining. 

I and a couple of my colleagues have a list of queries that have been left hanging:

  • Can you be a sex worker while training as a psychotherapist? (Still unclear)
  • How are the registration bodies going to look out for dual-trained practitioners? (Still unclear)
  • What is the legal reason for COSRT’s two ethical issues, that a COSRT member therapist cannot refer a client to a sex surrogate because it constitutes a form of ‘pimping’ (scare quotes mine), and that a member cannot signpost a client towards doing sex surrogacy work as this apparently constitutes coercion?
  • COSRT’s journal, Sex and Relationship Therapy, is currently planning a special issue about sex work, written entirely by sex workers. (Deadline for submissions March 31st.) We are wondering why this was not mentioned at the conference?

And here are some thoughts about how we can all move forward:

  1. There needs to be a basic CPD training for therapists around competency in working with sex workers.
  2. There needs to be a directory of sex work friendly therapists, a bit like the kink and poly ones that already exist, with a badge to go on the practitioner’s website.
  3. The main counselling and psychotherapy bodies would do well to reflect on why there is increasing frustration among therapists who work with GSRD clients, and who may well be GSRD identified themselves. There is a great opportunity here for these organisations to offer better support to all these client groups. Currently, too many minority clients are being harmed by a lack of understanding of their needs, judgement and pathologisation, and unhelpful use of therapeutic techniques and theories.
  4. Led by the registration bodies, training organisations need to focus on diversity as the baseline, not an extra – and actual identity-based diversity rather than just ‘theories of diversity’ or relying on the students to provide the topics. The same goes for sex – this also needs to be a baseline subject. I have encountered many clients who are not sure whether they are allowed to mention sex at all in sessions. 
  5. Training organisations need to find ways to make trainings accessible to less well off students. Important minority voices are being lost due to this. Actually, many people do sex work because it is the only way to make a reasonable living (often on top of parenting and working around health issues) – for many people it would be the only way to make the kind of money needed to pay for counselling training.
  6. Dual-trained practitioners are crying out for a membership organisation that can respect them and cater for all their needs. When one becomes visible, I suspect many will leave their existing registration bodies.

Several participants were reminded of the American Psychiatric Association conference in 1972, when being gay was still designated a mental illness. John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist, spoke on the stand while heavily disguised in a mask. This was an act of great courage, and we saw similar courage over the last two days. 

This was a groundbreaking event that I was incredibly privileged to attend. Huge thanks to everyone who organised, presented and participated.

The next Pink Therapy conference, where I may be speaking, is ‘Contemporary Issues in BDSM and Therapy’ on 6 October 2018.