I am African American, and I think I may have an anxiety disorder. I worry that a therapist who is not African American might not be able to help me with my issues. How can I make sure my therapist understands what is wrong with me?

Response from Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD:

You are not alone. More than 40 million adults in the United States suffer from some form of anxiety. Sadly, only one-third recognize what may be happening and talk to their doctor. Congratulations on taking the first step in reclaiming your life and asking for help.

When talking to your doctor, make sure you do the following:

  • Use your own words to describe your feelings, symptoms, and experiences.
  • Give an example such as, “Lately, rather than driving over a bridge, I will take the long way around.” or “At night for no reason at all I wake up with my heart pounding and feeling very, very scared.”
  • Describe your physical symptoms.
  • Tell your doctor how these experiences make you feel.

Once you explain what you are experiencing, your doctor will refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker who has expertise in treating anxiety disorders. At the first meeting, this person will gather more information about your symptoms and explain how the therapy process works.

Most will use some form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you overcome and manage the disorder. CBT is a form of therapy that helps you understand how thoughts and feelings influence behaviors.

As an African American psychologist who specializes in anxiety among African Americans, I frequently receive calls and e-mails from people who are concerned because their physician has referred them to a non-African American therapist. They want to know if this therapist will understand “their issues.” It’s an excellent and important question.

Whereas it would be wonderful if everyone who contacts me could be referred to an African American therapist, the reality is that the number of African American therapists is extremely small: Only about 1.8 percent of licensed psychologists are African Americans, 2.3 percent of all psychiatrists are African Americans, and 7 percent of licensed social workers are African American.

Fortunately, to be a licensed mental health professional in most states, you must receive training in multicultural issues. This means you must be trained to deliver treatment to African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, Asian Americans, and American Indians and Alaska Natives. As someone who provides that training, I know firsthand the care and commitment that goes into insuring that trainees are culturally competent.

If you are concerned about your therapist’s ability to understand African American issues, the best course of action is to simply ask. Here are three important questions:

  • Have you ever treated an African American with an anxiety disorder?
  • I’m concerned that you may not understand my issues, concerning being an African American female or male and being anxious. Do you feel you can?
  • Have you been trained in multicultural issues?

Anxiety is treatable, and with the help of a therapist who has been trained in multicultural issues, regardless of race or ethnicity, you can reclaim your life.

Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Kent State University, is a leading expert on anxiety disorders among African Americans. She is the CEO of Soothe Your Nerves, Inc., and the author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 2003). 

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ADAA is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, OCD, PTSD, depression, and related disorders and to improving the lives of all people who suffer from them.