Contributed by Amanda Bates, M.B.A, M.Ed

If there is anything the past year has shown us, it is that culturally competent therapists are needed more than ever. A global pandemic, bruising political elections, a social justice reckoning and uncertain economic landscape have brought us here and made it clearer than ever.

Expats face the same challenges, and in some cases, even more than their counterparts at home. For expats of color, some challenges can be further exacerbated. The topics of race and ethnicity coupled with diversity and inclusion can often be shied away from in expat discussions. It is part of the reason why The Black Expat came into existence. We want to believe that the international spaces we inhabit are free of the drama and trauma we have at home. But changing locations is not enough to simply make all issues disappear.

Often, these issues become further heightened when part of an underrepresented group, who might struggle to find support within an expat community. Depending on the size of one’s community, individuals may struggle with how to navigate as part of a few, if not the only one, in their international circles. Moving abroad does not always mean leaving racism behind. They may be dealing with racism abroad or subjected to microaggressions, especially in countries that have very little of their ethnic representation. In fact, this becomes compounded for minorities, even while abroad. For example, there were increasing xenophobic attacks towards those of East Asian descent during the Covid-19 pandemic as both ordinary citizens and politicians were looking to blame for the outbreak.

In addition, minority professionals might employ code-switching mechanisms to integrate with mainstream expat spaces. They may also be distrustful of disclosing personal and professional challenges if they are experiencing microaggressions based on identity, especially if the perpetrators are part of their greater expat circles. Understandably, all these situations may cause anxiety and stress, compelling individuals to seek professional help.

Therefore, the effort to seek therapeutic guidance may be a big decision. Statistically, non-White populations are less likely to pursue counseling compared to White counterparts. Some barriers include a distrust of professionals who do not share the same cultural or ethnic background, perceived conflict between religious values and mental health, as well as limited access to services. That’s why it’s powerful when a minority client trusts enough to come to a professional and share their anguish. So then, how can mental health professionals be better prepared for minority expats who are seeking help?

Be Empathetic

Whether it is Trayvon Martin, Adama Traoré, George Floyd, there is fatigue and anxiety seeing another murder of a Black individual, incessantly  throughout both traditional  and social media. There is a trauma that comes with repeatedly witnessing violence against a people group that you is part of your identity. Minorities may also feel a personalized guilt of feeling perceivably safe from escaping the social problems at home.  This should go without saying but I will say it anyway — be empathetic. For groups used to being in the shadows of public discourse, an acknowledgement of their personhood and experiences can feel powerful.

Examine Your Own Biases

We realistically and authentically need to recognize our own prejudices and assumptions. Counselors are human and we each bring our own baggage to the proverbial table. But beyond recognizing them, it is clear that we engage in self-reflection so it does not interfere and impact our work. It is imperative that we recognize and challenge ourselves when it comes to dealing with work of DEI and working with clients who are trying to unpack the trauma and drama around identity. Our biases can run deep — along nationalistic, racial, ethnic, religious lines, or more. No one wants to be the counselor to admit they have them but we need to address them.

Keep the Professional Development Going

Learning is an ongoing process. The ability to hear and understand from marginalized groups can better inform our ability to support them. We are not the experts in the room — especially when it comes to the experiences of those with whom we’ve had very little interaction as a people group. The willingness to enter areas of learning that might be unknown to us will help better inform how we can support our clients through their professional journey. Groups such as the Black, African, Asian Network do a powerful job of maintaining resources on issues pertaining to minority groups. And while they may not be explicitly focused on the expat experience, they do give an insight on resources to learn more about the needs of various groups.

Create a Network of Allies

For us in a helping profession, we desire to help individuals stay on a path of health and wellness. But we’re also human, and not every client is right for us — for a number of reasons. Connecting and partnering with other practitioners that serve the internationally mobile helps us develop a referral network. There may be another individual who is just a better fit for a client. Some clients truthfully may feel more comfortable being supported by people who share a similar identity. Engaging fellow counselors who have a different perspective, area of influence and/or geographical knowledge than you could bolster not only your knowledge but also your referral source as well.

There’s never been more of a time for underrepresented expats to find mental health support. We just need to ensure we are providing a culturally sensitive environment to do so.

Author: Amanda Bates, M.B.A, M.Ed

As a third culture kid, Amanda Bates’ interest in navigating cross-cultural spaces and identity started young. Her American-born, African raised perspective continues to influence her as she leads the creative direction of The Black Expat, a multimedia platform focused on Black identity and international living. A trained counselor by profession, Amanda helps students and clients build the careers they love.