Race, Culture and HSPs: "Black People Don’t Do Therapy"


I am no doubt an HSP. I’ve read Elaine Aron’s wonderful and eye-opening books, I’ve taken the quizzes in the workbooks and I’ve been greatly helped by much of the advice given on HSP websites and by knowing that I’m not alone. And like very many HSPs I’ve suffered bouts of depression and very high anxiety, the type that requires professional help. Yet there’s still this nagging feeling I always have, one I have to constantly temper, that my sensitivity and the symptoms it causes are just my “weaknesses,” and that I have to work hard to not let my weaknesses show. Now I know this is just negative self-talk, which any white person who is also HSP can relate to, but my feelings and self-talk are largely influenced racially and culturally as is true for many black people.

Black People And Sensitivity

Admitting to and showing great sensitivity is a no-no in my (Black American) culture.  Being “tough” and not “letting it ‘get’ to me” are what I was always encouraged and at times, demanded to do. I can still remember my dad screaming at me, “You got a WEAKNESS!” when I was about 12-years-old and being picked on at school. My mother would threaten to hit me if I ever cried. And since we customarily “take over” for our parents as adults and end up treating ourselves just as well or as badly as they did, I got to the point in my late 30s where I couldn’t leave the house without having a four-alarm panic attack and the bravest thing I could do was seek treatment. I could no longer function in that anxious, unbalanced state. All that “not letting it show” made me physically, and severely psychologically and emotionally sick. So even though seeking help put me in a category that is downright scary to contemplate (according to a recent Al Jazeera America special report, black people are half as likely to seek treatment for anxiety, depression or any other mental health-related issue as Whites), I had to save my sanity and my life. I weighed 112 pounds. I needed help. I was sick.

Black People And Therapy

According to a paper published by the National Institutes of Health in 2008, many people of color who end up seeking treatment stated that it was the need to get well that triumphed over the opinions of the family and community when it came to seeking treatment, and often at the crisis stage.

112 pounds! Panic attacks! Hello?!??

Jinneh Dyson, now senior manager of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, VA, had debilitating depression while at college in Texas and rejected the idea of therapy for years. Loved ones would say, “That’s going to make you crazy. You’ve just got to pray and have faith,” recalled Dyson, who is Black and the daughter of a Baptist minister. “They said, ‘That’s the way of the white man, poisoning you.'”

But guess what? I’m not religious. And I’m intelligent enough to know that neither God nor prayer can stop a serious panic attack. Therefore, I, like Ms. Dyson, sought treatment.

The statistics are pretty scary:

  • African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites;
  • Non-Hispanic Whites are more than twice as likely to receive antidepressant prescription treatment as are Non-Hispanic Blacks;
  • A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233%, as compared to 120% of Non-Hispanic Whites.

Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many other stress-related illnesses also affect Black Americans more adversely. This is no accident.  Therefore, it must be discussed and taken into account that all the anxiety and overstimulation affecting our community, and in particular those of us with highly sensitive natures, are large factors in these adverse medical outcomes, and can be addressed lovingly and effectively through good therapy.

Of course, race and culture weren’t the only factors in my getting sick. There was the job I lost, there was losing my sister, and losing the romantic relationship I was in at around the same time; there was even my lack of understanding about how important it is to my HSP nature to eat healthy, organic food and exercise regularly. Yet, I wasn’t thinking about those things when I opened the door to this new therapy center. I was thinking about connecting with someone of my culture, who speaks my cultural “language” and regularly uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in her practice, which I’ve been wanting to try (it’s the “doer” in me), to help patients with social anxiety, so that I don’t feel like such an alien in my brown skin anymore.

5 thoughts on “Race, Culture and HSPs: "Black People Don’t Do Therapy"”

  1. Avatar Corinthia Loblack, NP-C, CCP, FS says:

    We tend to over generalize when we speak of racial issues. Black Americans come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Although it is widely accepted that we do not cry in public, we do have family and faith to keep us grounded.
    The lack of research on how people of color react to different medical modalities is vastly responisble for health care disparities between racial and ethnic groups.

    1. Avatar Maria says:

      Hi Corinthia,

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting on the post. It is difficult not to over generalize on one blog post about race and the highly sensitive person. Your point is well taken that over generalization has its perils as much as we might be trying to open awareness. Research has been notoriously one-sided so we like to hear the actual experiences of people who are highly sensitive so that others can feel heartened by learning that there are others like them.

      Happy New Year,

  2. Avatar Olga Reyes says:

    Correction: last sentence

    I can definitely relate to this because in our culture we are being pushed to “suck it up, stop crying, not to be scared of anything, etc”. Our feelings are being suppressed and we never learn how to deal with our feelings or worsted we are bought up NOT feeling anything. We are basically taught to go through life without emotions. It’s a sad culture and I partly blame our culture for the amount of anxiety and depression there is out there.

    1. Avatar Maria Hill says:

      Thanks, Olga for sharing your experience. It is very difficult when feelings are not allowed because they do not go aware and can fester eventually causing illness. We all matter more than we are allowed to know.

      All the best,

  3. Avatar Deborah says:

    I’m so glad someone is addressing this issue! I believe that many issues I see other black women dealing with are due to them being highly sensitive and not knowing it.
    I sought therapy and it was in therapy I learned about being HSP. Before then, I only knew that no matter what I had to uphold the ideal of the strong black woman, being long suffering and neglected. The idea that I could be highly sensitive AND that it could be a good thing, was not a consideration. I was praised for how much I suffered in silence while being married to an addict and raising my 4 children. I was clearly, CLEARLY losing myself, but I was only told to be stronger, hold on. And pray.
    I wonder how many black women are HSP’s but force themselves to live like the 80% while reaching for the Black Strong Woman badge of honor.
    I hope to see more people of color bringing this important discussion to the community. It will save lives.

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