Psychotherapy for The African American Experience

By: Alike Zesiro Chandler

M.A. Multicultural Education, M.A. Clinical Psychology, Connecting Mental Health & Education/CalVCP,Pre-license Therapist, Educator (Performing Arts/Journalism), CAMFT, Assoc. of Black Psychologist


The field of Psychology has grown exponentially within the past decade. When we think of some of the pioneering theorists, we think of Sigmund Freud and his Psychoanalytic Theory or perhaps BF Skinner and his Reinforcement Theory. On the contrary, how often do we think of theorist such as Egyptian Psychologist Kamilia Abdelfattah and her contributions to Child Psychology or Nai’m Akbar, a Clinical Psychologist whose work is dedicated to the empowerment of men and women within the African American world community? Some may say, what’s the big idea? We’re all human; therefore, we all share similar experiences. Although true, basic human experiential abstracts such as sadness, anxiety or depression are all commonalities, but the context of the experience differs by culture and race. By far, the African/African American experience is uniquely different from any other group across the diaspora. No other group has encountered most of the systemic racial injustices that African American’s have endured for centuries. The inequity and injustice African Americans continue to face with racial profiling within countless industries has taken a toll on the African American conscious and subconscious mind. At present, the “Black Lives Matter” movement has been the platform for spreading awareness and moving towards positive change, but how do you begin to heal the minds of a community that has been badly beaten mentally and physically for decades? Men, women and youth continue to face traumas such as mass killings not only by those entities that are in power to protect and serve the community, but also by the hands of their own. Many African Americans are sheltered from the fact that they meet the criteria for having Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. When we hear that phrase we think of that military vet that can’t cope with making a transition from war trauma to civilian life. However, when you take a look at the criteria for PTSD, you’ll be surprised to find that many African American’s will be somewhere on the spectrum. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can affect the individual both directly and indirectly. When a teenager is unjustifiably killed in cold blood by a police officer, this affects not only the family but the entire African American community. As these events continue to occur without reprimand, the community becomes justifiably outraged and the mental health of the community stakeholders is compromised.

The complex nature of the traumas experienced by African American’s within this country is evidenced by a number of negative reactionary behaviors, some of which are displayed within the family i.e. domestic violence, absentee fathers, drug use and even more evident in the self-destructive behaviors displayed within all aspects of the media such as over sexualized women unaware of self-worth and the men who objectify them. Although these behaviors aren’t by any means exclusive to African Americans, they place them at a disadvantage when seeking a foundation for social and emotional change. Moreover, should we solely base our limited understanding of these complexities and behaviors with those theorists that are disconnected from the African/African American experience? Although these theorists have provided a strong framework for the field of Psychology and Psychotherapy, the question remains, why haven’t we had the privilege of being enlightened by theoretical approaches that are relevant to the African/African American experience? Have they been hidden in order to propagate the agenda of our ancestries past? Or was it simply that the African/African American wasn’t considered due to their early classification upon forced arrival into the Americas? Earlier research and studies primarily included non-African/African American groups. As a result, very minimal African centered theoretical approaches have been introduced to the field.

Due to the fact that few Afrocentric approaches to Psychology have been mainstreamed, a spiritually based framework called NTU (Bantu language meaning “essence”) Psychology/Psychotherapy has sparsely been introduced to the field in most recent years. Although not much traction has been gained, it was designed to blend cultural and spiritual norms to assist African Americans in living a healthier lifestyle. Could this be the answer and the healing agent for men, women and children who have suffered from psychological traumas for generations? NTU is an all-encompassing framework to health and healing incorporating culture, spirituality, psycho-education, family centeredness, and values. Its holistic approach seeks balance of the mind, body and soul. NTU seeks harmony and oneness with life which correlates with the notion that all things in existence are connected. It introduces the idea that the relationship with the spiritual self is to be authentic and genuine. The principals of Nguzu Saba (Kwanza) are incorporated within this psychological approach; unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Although the Eurocentric approach is widely used and is supported by empirical research, NTU may perhaps have more enduring effects as its focuses on the African/African American whole person.
How does this translate into psychotherapy? Much of the process focuses on self and natural order as opposed to ideas the therapist imposes onto the patient or client. The healing process includes but not limited to; prayer, humor, cultural awareness, positive regard for self, communication exercises, modeling positive behaviors, relaxation exercises, role play, unity circles, meditation, affirmations and family connections; much of what is not seen in the more Euro centered approaches. Most Eurocentric approaches to therapy focus on “evidence based” practices and techniques analyzing what can be measured or quantified versus the quality and connections to the experiences. NTU is culturally sensitive and each technique can be modified based on the individual’s needs, family and cultural background. This allows this approach to also be utilized by non- African/African American groups. The therapist provides a solid foundation for the healing to begin. As the client has moved towards a resolution, he or she should be able to incorporate tools acquired through the process towards future life challenges.
Ultimately, NTU is an approach to mental health that will engage the African/African American clients in aligning him or herself with empowering themselves as opposed to someone imposing beliefs onto them. Empowerment is the critical component in the psychotherapy healing process for the African American world community.

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