Racism and Racial Trauma: 4 Ways to Facilitate Healing in the Therapeutic Space

Friday, September 22

A strong therapeutic alliance is key to helping clients reach their therapy goals. A big part of fostering this relationship is ensuring clients feel they have a safe space to talk about their experiences and feelings, and that they are being validated and understood. This concept is especially important for clients who have experienced racism and racial trauma. 

In the webinar “Racial Dynamics in Psychotherapy: Intervention and Prevention of Racial Trauma”, Alex Pieterse, PhD, discusses findings related to psychological responses to racism in the context of trauma, shares a framework for understanding the possible impact of race within the therapy relationship, and offers clinical practices to facilitate safety in the therapy space. 

Read on to learn more about racial trauma and get key takeaways from Dr. Pieterse on how you can foster strong therapeutic relationships with clients who have experienced it. 

What is racial trauma? 

First, it’s important to understand what racial trauma is. According to Dr. Pieterse and others, racial trauma is the experience of sustaining an emotional or psychological injury in response to a direct or indirect racist event. 

Furthermore, Dr. Pieterse says that racial trauma is: 

  • Enduring: It is an ongoing experience.
  • Emotional: It impacts emotional functioning and affective expression.
  • Cognitive: It impacts how a person experiences the world on a mental level.
  • Somatic: It can be expressed with somatic, or physical, concerns. 

Dr. Pieterse notes that not every racist stressor leads to racial trauma, but those that are especially intense or frequent are more likely to elicit racial trauma.

Therapeutic approaches to help facilitate healing from racial trauma 

Pieterse shares four ways you can help clients heal from their experiences with racial trauma in the therapeutic space: 

1. Normalize an inquiry into experiences of racism and/or racial identity salience 

Although it’s typical to assume that sexual trauma, physical, or emotional abuse won’t be part of our clients’ narrative, behavioral health providers should always inquire into those areas as part of a standard intake process. It’s important to think about racial trauma in the same way, and normalize assessing it. 

2. Consider using assessment scales 

There are an abundance of assessments you can use to assess for racial trauma, including the Race-Based Traumatic Stress Symptom Sale (Carter et al, 2013), and Trauma Symptoms of Discrimination Scale (Williams et al, 2018). 

3. Think of therapy as being reparative 

It’s important to ensure that therapy is reparative and not re-traumative. This means focusing on validating clients' feelings and being empathetic. 

Helping clients reframe how they think about their experience with racial trauma can also help them heal. Some clients may blame themselves for what they experienced. It’s important to help them understand that it’s not their fault. 

Normalizing the experience of racism in society can also help clients reframe their thinking. This means discussing with clients about how society is structured around racism, and therefore racism is a normal occurrence. 

4. Engage clients in strategies that facilitate coping, survival, and resistance

Empowerment-based strategies can help clients reclaim their identity and thrive. These strategies can include educating clients about how racism functions and its impact, exploring opportunities for activism, and helping them see themselves as part of a collective who have survived and thrived. 

The importance of looking inward 

For these therapeutic approaches to be effective in helping clients heal from racial trauma, Dr. Pieterse says it’s vital to be comfortable with race-related dialogue and ensure you’ve examined your own areas of privilege. 

If you’re a SonderMind provider, access a recording of the webinar here to learn more from Dr. Pieterse about how you can help clients heal from racial trauma. 

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About the presenter

Dr. Alex Pieterse is an associate professor of counseling psychology in the Department of Counseling, Educational and Developmental Psychology at Boston College. He received his PhD in counseling psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Pieterse’s scholarship focuses on psychosocial aspects of race and racism, racial trauma, and anti-racism training and self-awareness. Dr Pieterse is a licensed psychologist and has experience as a racial diversity consultant, and is currently an associate editor for The Counseling Psychologist. 

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