In the US, research has shown that more than 80 per cent of ethnic minority clients report experiencing at least one racial microaggression during therapy. Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional forms of everyday discrimination, such as denial of the impact of racist stereotypes or a general reluctance to explore cultural differences.
Contrary to what we might expect, the therapy room is not always a safe haven, especially when it echoes the unconscious biases of our society.
While there is little data on microaggressions and counselling in Ireland, Ejiro Ogbevoen, psychotherapist and founder of Black Therapists Ireland, says that the experience of being othered is not uncommon among her clients, the majority of whom are black.
“I have heard things like, ‘yeah, I just want somebody who gets it [racism]. I don’t want to have to explain myself.’ People have told me they have been told, ‘well, this [racist incident] is a cultural thing, and I really don’t understand how to work with it’,” Ogbevoen explains.
“Sometimes, a lot of the conversations may not have to do with racism. However, your perception because of racism may not be caught by a white therapist. I know that good work can be done with a white therapist, but some people – they feel heard, held, understood in the space where you [the therapist] just get it.”
Ravind Jeawon, psychotherapist and founder of the culturally inclusive practice Talk Therapy Dublin, provides further anecdotal support for a lack of racial and cultural awareness. He says many of his ethnic minority clients describe having had negative experiences of mental health support services, some of which resulted in their early dropout. Most commonly, his clients have reported being subjected to “unintentional microaggressions” within therapy sessions, “assumptions about women from other cultures”, and “misunderstandings around the way [they] express themselves”. Some clients, who identify with collectivist cultures, have also described being alienated by therapists who work solely with individualistic concepts of self, family, and marriage.
According to Jeawon, a common complaint is exposure to the “repeated denial of the client’s experience as a person of colour in an Irish context”. This experience is familiar to many Irish people whose skin tone deviates from the majority, and has been eloquently captured by Irish-born author and academic Emma Dabiri in a 2016 Guardian article: “Whiteness is ‘pure’ and doesn’t extend to brown girls, even those who can trace their Irish ancestry back to the 10th century. How frequently I heard that I ‘wasn’t really Irish’.”
Although an increasing number of black people in Ireland identify as ethnically Irish, the categories of “black” and “Irish” continue to be taken as mutually exclusive, both inside and outside the therapy room. These unconscious biases persist in spite of 2016 Census results, which showed that one in every three people in Ireland of African descent were born in Ireland.
The problem with it all is that you’re going through a training curriculum which is designed based on Western research and which is delivered predominantly by Irish-born white people— Ravind Jeawon, psychotherapist and founder of Talk Therapy Dublin
With ethnic minorities found to make up 17.8 per cent of the Irish population, there is a need for perspectives to be updated. As the Irish population grows more diverse, it is important for counsellors and psychotherapists to be aware of the unique social challenges faced by marginalised communities in Ireland. The Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (2017) shows that Ireland has one of the highest rates of hate-motivated harassment within the EU (51 per cent compared to a 30 per cent average), while a 2021 report by the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) revealed that racist crimes disproportionately targeted people of Asian background, owing to increases in Covid-related xenophobia.
Despite the changing face of the Irish population and the continued incidence of racism, the core psychotherapy training lacks in-depth engagement with these issues. It is possible that this oversight reflects the homogenous make-up of the psychotherapy profession. A recent member survey carried out by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) found that less than 0.5 per cent of members surveyed identified as non-white ethnic minorities (eg, Black Irish, African, Asian, Asian Irish, mixed backgrounds).
According to Iwona Blasi, innovation and development manager of the IACP, all training is delivered “with equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in mind”. However, she admits that psychotherapy degree courses do not require any “specific EDI learning outcomes” in order to gain IACP accreditation. “The problem with it all is that you’re going through a training curriculum which is designed based on Western research and which is delivered predominantly by Irish-born white people,” says Jeawon. He believes that the training did not teach the kind of “multicultural responsiveness” which he has found to be crucial in his own clinical practice.
It’s not about reading a load of facts about multicultural stuff, whatever that might mean for people. It’s actually about experiencing it— Ravind Jeawon, psychotherapist and founder of Talk Therapy Dublin
The slow progress of the IACP stands in stark contrast to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), who are in the process of introducing a new EDI toolkit. The toolkit, which will “focus on race, ethnicity and anti-oppressive practice”, is the collaborative product of nine therapy organisations, all members of the Coalition for Inclusion and Anti-Oppressive Practice Diversity. Once this initiative is implemented later this year, EDI will become a core requirement for all BACP-accredited psychotherapy courses.
“We want EDI to be a core part of training programmes and to be embedded throughout all aspects of the training,” says Caroline Jesper, head of professional standards at the BACP. “This includes student recruitment and retention, organisational policies and procedures, how students experience the course, right through to how both students and trainers develop their competence in this area.”
Paying equal attention to EDI within the Irish context could help to ensure that all those who are seeking counselling are being met with the same degree of respect, empathy and understanding, regardless of their racial and ethnic identity.
“There’s a privilege and a power in the institutions of psychotherapy and the accrediting bodies which reflects the country that we are living in,” says Jeawon. “We have to name that and start to look at our courses and our trainings from the point of view of inclusivity.”
While diversifying reading lists and gaining cultural awareness is important, Jeawon emphasises the deeper need for learning through real engagement and participation. He says, “It’s not about reading a load of facts about multicultural stuff, whatever that might mean for people. It’s actually about experiencing it.”
Ogbevoen, who serves on the IACP’s new EDI committee, highlights the need for more conversations about race, which remain far behind those on gender, sexuality or even disability. She says that there is “a strong energy around LGBTQ and gender” but much less focus on racial difference. Adequate representation and involvement of ethnic minorities within this process could provide the “catalyst” for deeper and more meaningful change.