She’d go to sessions and either water down her observations as a Filipina, Chinese and Spanish woman, or simply not address some of the more thorny aspects of her race and ethnicity ― like her lingering guilt over pursuing a job in writing and communications when her parents had dreams of her entering the medical or engineering field. Or how tired she was of swiping right on men on dating apps, only to have them say something in her DMs that suggested they had an Asian fetish.
Now that she’s been working with a therapist who also identifies as Asian American, she feels like there’s a mutual, unspoken understanding of her identity. She can share what she’s processing at the moment without having to slow down and educate someone who’s culturally unfamiliar with the territory.
“It’s like I’m able to dive into a 400-level understanding of race and ethnicity and skip over the 100-level,” Morelos, an assistant director of digital community engagement at the University of San Francisco, told HuffPost. “There’s a level of psychological safety in my therapy work now that I’ve found incredibly valuable.”
While there are certainly culturally competent white therapists out there, many may never bring up a difference in race or ethnicity due to their own discomfort or lack of awareness around it, said Ivy Kwong, a psychotherapist specializing in AAPI mental health and healing intergenerational trauma.
“I have spoken with many Asian American females whose white therapists never referenced or inquired about how they’ve been impacted by the anti-Asian hate incidents or the Atlanta spa shooting,” she said. “As clients, they’ve felt extremely uncomfortable in sessions having to bring it up themselves or they’ve not brought it up at all because they felt their therapist couldn’t offer them a space of comfort or knowledge.”
It can be exhausting to do that kind of emotional labor in your own therapy, Kwong said.
“Therapy should be a space that is for you, where you can rest or fall apart and be as you are,” she said.
“The cultural understanding helped tremendously. No need to explain nor be seen as weird or exotic.”
Martin Gee, a Chinese American freelance illustrator in New York, sought out an Asian American therapist after dealing with some dismissiveness about his experiences from a white therapist.
“My first therapist and I weren’t on the same page, and having to explain racism to her so that I could supposedly understand it better was an insulting waste of time,” he said.
Gee’s experiences aren’t uncommon. Asian Americans are already the least likely racial group in the U.S. to seek mental health services, and when they do, they face cultural barriers like the ones Gee described. According to one study, AAPI clients have reported lower service satisfaction and less confidence in their provider, attributed to a lack of culturally responsive therapy.
Eventually, Gee “broke up” with his therapist and found another provider who was biracial ― Chinese and Jamaican.
“Even that cultural understanding helped tremendously,” he said. “No need to explain nor be seen as weird or exotic.”
There’s another reason it’s valuable to find an Asian therapist, said Lia Huynh, a marriage and family therapist: Non-Asian American therapists may look at facets of Asian cultural values and dynamics ― living at home into adulthood, for instance ― and only see unhealthy patterns and dysfunction.
“It’s quite common ― and even lauded ― when Asian adult children live at home until they get married, but someone who doesn’t understand this might label the situation as ‘enmeshed’ ― a psychological term for being too close and in need of boundaries,” she said.
“I’m not saying that wouldn’t be the case, but it isn’t always,” Huynh said. “Sometimes it’s a case of an adult child simply honoring their parents.”
Ultimately, an Asian American therapist is far more likely to appreciate cultural nuances and understand them as psychological adaptations to social pressure, said Jenny T. Wang, a clinical psychologist and the author of the upcoming book “Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans.”
“It’s about understanding the lived experiences of other Asian Americans, but also appreciating how the historical, cultural and societal forces of colonialism, immigration, racism, intergenerational trauma, cultural values and survival adaptations impact the mental health of Asian Americans,” Wang said.
How To Find An Asian American Therapist
In order for therapy to really work and have an impact on your life, you need to find the right fit. It’s critical to take your time with this process ― no need to rush into sessions with the first therapist you find! Below, Asian American mental health experts share how to best execute your search.
Search databases that cater to AAPI mental health.
Luckily, there are plenty of online resources to help you connect with an Asian-identifying therapist these days. Kwong recommends the following directories:
Asian For Mental Health, a directory where you can search by state (and also find therapists who are licensed to practice in multiple states);
Asian Mental Health Collective, a therapist directory for those in the U.S. and Canada;
South Asian Therapists, the largest South Asian mental health therapist community. The directory has hundreds of South Asian therapists, including those of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Afghan and Nepali heritage;
Inclusive Therapists, a directory to find therapists who focus on the needs of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BI&POC) and the LGBTQ community;
Unmute, a startup by two AAPI women, originally founded to help match AAPI clients to AAPI therapists based on specialty and insurance.
You could also conduct a Google search or Psychology Today search for “Asian American therapist” in your state. Wang said you can also filter the search list based on the presenting issue (ie., anxiety, depression, marriage difficulties, etc.), cost requirements (in-network insurance, sliding-scale/reduced fees, pro bono), therapist attributes (ie., gender identity, ethnicity, years in practice, specialty trainings).
If financial limitations are a concern, Open Path Collective has a directory of clinicians who offer sessions between $30-$80 per session, which is much lower than a typical self-pay rate, Wang said. (Here are a few other suggestions for cutting costs, even just a little bit.)
If an AAPI therapist you’d like to work with is not covered by your insurance, ask if they have sliding scale rates available or if they are able to create a superbill for you after sessions. (A superbill is a receipt for a session with an out-of-network counselor that a patient can submit to their health insurance for a full or partial reimbursement.)
Even if the therapist you reach out to can’t take you at the time, they might be able to recommend another AAPI therapist they know is available.
“I am in many AAPI therapist networks where we can request referral info in order to support clients in getting the culturally responsive care they need and deserve,” Kwong said.
Consider teletherapy if you can’t find a local Asian-identifying therapist.
Can’t find an Asian-identifying therapist in your area? You’re in luck: Because of COVID-19, many therapists have gotten licensed in additional states to offer telehealth services outside of their hometowns.
Search any of the aforementioned directories for therapists who practice telehealth across state lines. (Therapists will usually advertise what states they can practice in right on their homepage, or you can look over the current telehealth service allowances/guidelines in your state here.)
Interview therapists before selecting one.
Don’t be afraid to do a little “therapist shopping” before selecting one. Most therapists offer a free 15-minute consult first so you can see if you’re a good match. (Don’t feel beholden or obligated to pick someone just because you’ve spoken to them and used up their time; many therapists already offer trial calls like this.)
During these brief consults, give the therapist a synopsis of your presenting concerns ― that’s therapy-speak for what led you to seek out therapy ― and ask them about their general approach and professional experience with AAPI clients.
Don’t rule out non-Asian American therapists with experience and cultural sensitivity.
In order for therapy to work, you need to feel safe with your therapist. That sense of safety can be a result of your shared cultural background, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Some Asian Americans might actually prefer a non-Asian therapist because they worry that they might be judged by someone from within their community, Wang said.
If you were born overseas or have very strong ties to your Asian culture, finding someone who is Asian becomes much more salient, according to Huynh.
If do plan to expand your search but still want someone who’s culturally aware, Wang recommends asking the following questions during your 15-minute consultations:
Have you worked with Asian American clients in the past and how is it different from working with clients with other identities?
How do you consider intersectionality within your clinical practice?
What type of work have you engaged in to better equip you in working with Asian Americans? (For instance, have you pursued educational training on anti-racism, cultural humility and issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion?)
What work have you done to explore and interrogate your implicit biases in working with people of color?
A quality Wang said she looks for in any therapist is a sense of humility: Regardless of their ethnicity, are they approachable, open-minded, and genuinely curious about your perspectives and experiences?
“A therapist who prioritizes humility sees themselves as collaborators much more than as ‘experts,’” she said. “They can withstand being told that they are wrong and are able to tolerate admitting they messed up.”
What you need is a therapist with a deep understanding of how to apply cultural humility in therapy sessions.
“A culturally humble and reverent therapist will acknowledge the inherent power, privilege, and race dynamics within the therapy room,” Wang said. “They will be able to curiously wonder which parts of your cultural heritage are life-giving and help you question parts that might be too costly to maintain.”
Recognize what a “good fit” feels like for a client and therapist.
The bottom line is, you and any potential therapist are likely a good fit if you’re able to share openly with them and feel supported, appreciated and understood when you do so.
One tell-tale sign that client and therapist are not a good fit? If you feel invalidated by their comments or you find yourself dreading going to therapy every week, said Cindy Shu, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, California.
Some examples include “feeling emotionally exhausted with having to explain their cultural experiences and or feeling defensive when a clinician gives feedback that is misaligned to the client’s lived experience,” Shu said. “If you feel misunderstood, bring it up with the therapist. There’s a huge opportunity for reparation and growth with the therapeutic relationship.”
The process of finding a therapist may feel time-consuming or a little scary, but ultimately, it’s entirely worth the effort. And you should be especially proud that you’re taking this step, given the longstanding resistance and stigma surrounding therapy in much of the Asian American community.
“For Asian Americans, it’s worth analyzing some of the cultural values that may have been passed down through generations that can cause individuals to feel grief, stuck and alone,” Shu said. “Doing the work now for ourselves means we can empower our future generations to live more fully in their authenticity.”