Breaking the Walls of Silence: Culturally Conscious Therapy from the Indo-Caribbean Perspective
Sailing the forbidden journey from the Indian subcontinent to the Caribbean countries of Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, Fiji, and Jamaica, to name a few, the Indo-Caribbean women who came before us were nothing short of remarkable. The age of indentureship allowed these women to take agency over their own lives and build a type of resilience necessary for their own survival in the face of the harsh realities of the sugar plantations in the Caribbean circa 1850.
It isn’t a wonder that the long line of ancestry of West Indians that follow, even many generations later, continue to feel the effects of intergenerational trauma.
The contemporary literature young Indo-Caribbean writers continue to produce in the 21st century reflect the psychological effects collective trauma has on subsequent generations. Grassroots organisations and collectives addressing issues of domestic violence, alcohol addiction, and hyphenated identities have found spaces online to thrive and advocate for community support through economic solidarity, healing and organising.
The rise of social media has allowed voices to be heard and to thrive, and JORE has collaborated with three remarkable Indo-Caribbean voices who are empowering others in their roles as mental health professionals.
While we continue to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental health supports and accessing resources, these women are blazing a path forward for their Indo-Caribbean communities in the diaspora as culturally conscious therapists.
What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in the mental health space?
Sherrie: Many, if not all of us, get into this field because we have been helpers since childhood. Many of us have had adverse childhood experiences and helping others helped us get through it. This career path allows me to support clients in transformative ways. Now I have the best tools and skills to help other people overcome difficulties and I feel privileged to be able to do this.
Merissa: I decided to get into mental health after seeing the profound effects different treatment interventions, like mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, had on someone's life. I specifically decided to specialize in Indo-Caribbean/South Asian mental health after hearing from friends and family about their difficulties finding a therapist who understood their culture. I've always wanted a career in service, and since acknowledging my unique strengths in connecting with those of similar cultural background, I've been very inspired to keep doing so.
Shivon: I have always been a curious person that has been fascinated with people and what makes them uniquely them. I’ve also always had an interest in facilitating growth in people. My idea of a fulfilling job is contributing to society in some way shape or form and I get to do that every single day with my job with every client that I meet. It’s a very rewarding feeling to witness someone recognize their own power and strength.
The Indo-Caribbean experience has a very distinctive culture. Has your culture played a role in how you view mental health and wellness?
Sherrie: The ancestors of Indo-Caribbean people experienced trauma due to the violent and inhumane conditions of indentureship. We understand that trauma lives in the body and is past down, which is intergenerational trauma. As an Indo-Caribbean therapist, I work from a trauma-informed lens because our mental health issues are interwined with intergenerational trauma. Of course trauma impacts mental health, so there is a significant amount of mental health issues in our community.
Merissa: Yes, definitely. I view mental health and wellness very much from a lens of intergenerational trauma. I take time to explore the traumas that previous generations would have experienced and how that may have affected subsequent or current generations. I also acknowledge growing up as a third culture kid and explore how this shapes a person's identity and sense of belonging.
Shivon: 100 percent it does contribute to how I view mental health and wellness. I never made the connection that metal health and wellness go hand in hand. Often times, in our culture you would hear that mental health wasn’t a real concern or you had to be severely sick to see a therapist. Mental health wasn’t a topic that was discussed in my home or many other Indo-Caribbean homes. I often felt like an outsider because it seemed like I thought about everything more deeply than my other family members or most people that I knew that were Trini.
Conversations that dealt with emotions were often bypassed and you were told not to “take those tings on” or “ yuh mustn’t worry yuself” it’s when I went away to college and really honed into my curiosity about emotions I made the connection of mental health and wellness. I started seeing my own therapist. Making that mental shift from we have emotions for a reason- we are supposed to feel them, repressing them will make them leak out into other areas of our life. Feeling them and dealing with in healthy ways made me feel better instead of repressing them- that is breaking a pattern. That is healing generational trauma.
This is also a main reason I chose to become a therapist. To help my undo learning we were taught. And relearn healthy coping methods.
What are your thoughts on the stigma surrounding therapy supports in the Indo-Caribbean community?
Sherrie: Stigma of mental health in the Indo-Caribbean is a fear-based response that serves as a barrier to accessing support. When we dig deep into the fear, we discover that people are scared of punitive and oppressive measures that were historically used on people that suffered with their mental health. Oral stories have been passed down through many generations about folks that lost agency over their bodies and their decision-making because they were deemed “mentally ill.” While these stories are sadly accurate, they prevent us from seeing the changes in the way mental health is viewed and treated today. There is a lack of awareness of what mental illness is, what it looks like, and what the treatment options are. If we, as a community, understood these things we would be more open to talking about mental health and receiving support.
Merissa: The stigma around therapy in the Indo-Caribbean community is pervasive but potentially changing - especially with the younger generations and their endeavors to be cycle breakers. I think American culture has been helpful in normalizing mental health topics, but some of the burden may fall on younger generations to help educate older generations about therapy. Stigma can be healed over time, but it does take continued efforts to do so. Articles and conversations like this definitely help this cause.
Shivon: With most communities there is unfortunately stigma around therapy and all things mental health related. That’s why it’s important for representation and to find therapists of their own background to help break that stigma.
When people don’t know about something often times they assume, and they can be assuming wrong. Therapy isn’t just about having severe problems or needing someone to prescribe you medication. And even if that were the case…. So what? Let’s be real- each one of us will go through something in our lifetime that will be unquestionably shakeable where we will need the help. And asking for help is OKAY. going to a professional who is trained to sit with us and handle are deepest, darkest places that we don’t even want to face ourselves is incredibly healing, brave, and. Rejuvenating.
To break stigma we need to face it and get curious with it. Why uphold these beliefs? How is it serving us? Are we just following the pack? If so why are we not questioning it? Are we afraid of the unknown? How does not going to a therapist serve us/ especially if we think it might benefit us?
I would encourage people to start questioning and getting curious with their beliefs if they hold stigma against therapy. It’s just holding them back from living their most authentic lives.
How can we combat stigma in the Caribbean countries we come from, and the diaspora where many of us have settled?
Sherrie: Combatting stigma of mental health starts at home. We start by having open conversations with family and friends, normalizing our experiences and accessing support for our mental health.
Merissa: To combat stigma, I think openly talking about our mental health experiences, including therapy, can be immensely helpful. For example, to hear from a friend or loved one that "I'm in therapy" is a powerful thing. I think we can also combat stigma by better articulating certain situations: someone isn't a drunkard but instead has trouble dealing with sadness or frustration. We can look at how mental illness is present around us and find ways to approach it with compassion.
Shivon: We need to talk more about it! From an early start. With no negative connotations. Openly talk about Negative feelings. If a child is showing frustration and says “I’m angry this happened” we should be leaning into okay tell me more why your angry? What happened? Can you feel the anger in your body? Is there anyway we can help with anger right now (breathing? Talking? Writing? Crying?)
Instead of “don’t get angry dats minor ting” that is teaching your child his emotions are not valid and he should not be feeling that way so instead he will Learn to repress that emotion and learn another way of dealing with anger instead of understanding that anger is an emotion that should be felt and then let go of after the feeling has subsided.
It would be great if groups can start being implemented in schools that can psycho-educate children about mental health. Or even having therapist give out business cards or do a school presentation once a month on certain topics to tech children about mental health.
What advice do you have for those considering therapy?
Sherrie: For anyone considering therapy, just start! Book free consultations with therapists and push through the discomfort because it gets better. Speak to more than one therapist and go with the one that you felt most comfortable speaking to because you will have the most success with that person. Finding the best fit is important.
Merissa: I suggest looking for a therapist with cultural knowledge or a cultural background similar to your own. For many of us, this may include expanding searches to include therapists with backgrounds in South Asian culture or immigrant culture. I also suggest asking a potential therapist about their understanding and experience in working with clients with these backgrounds prior to the first session if possible.
Shivon: reach out and talk to a therapist! Send a therapist a few questions you may have or hop on a phone call with them to ask them questions and share your hesitations with them. Or if you have a friend in therapy ask them about it. Or even follow some accounts on social media that are therapy based (be mindful this isn’t therapy) but it can give you an idea the topics that are discussed in sessions that keep you anonymous.
What has your experience been like as a therapist from an Indo-Caribbean background?
Sherrie: I feel very lucky that I’m in a position where I can support my community. As an Indo-Caribbean Therapist, I often hear from clients that they are happy that they finally found someone they don’t have to explain their culture to! Having a culturally compatible therapist makes a world of difference when there is already so much on your plate. Being heard and seen on multiple levels is priceless.
Merissa: My experience working as a therapist from an Indo-Caribbean background has been rewarding and special. I have many clients who say "you get it" or "you know what I mean" and that connection really helps build a therapeutic alliance. It has been special because I never imagined tapping into my cultural background as a therapist. My culture (especially third culture) often went misunderstood but now allows for a special connection for which I am very grateful.
Shivon: I have so much passion and love for my culture and my job, the fact that I get to tie the two together I am so very grateful, I get emotional talking about it. I can be this bridge to help bring my community awareness around a topic that I had no understanding about when I was younger. That representation alone brings me such joy and fulfilment. I love seeing my clients leave a session feeling empowered, heard, seen and valued. I enjoy inspiring and motivating others to become their most authentic, kind, mature, powerful and healthy versions of themselves. It’s beautiful to see this shift where in our culture vulnerability is seen as “soft” and “weak” but I’m a first hand witness of seeing MY people notice it’s a superpower. Now tell me I don’t have the greatest job in the world :)
About our contributing therapists —
Sherrie Mohammed (@therapywithsherrie) is an Indo-Caribbean Therapist that supports peoples to overcome trauma, anxiety and relationship issues. She is the founder and lead therapist for Mindwell Therapy Collective. When she is not providing therapy services, she is an educator at various Universities.
You can get in touch with Sherrie here: www.mindwelltherapycollective.com
Merissa Goolsaran (@brightlotuscounselling) LCSW is a mental health therapist from Florida with cultural roots in Trinidad and Guyana. Her specialties include working with clients experiencing anxiety and relationship issues.
Reach out to Merissa here: www.brightlotuscounseling.com
Shivan Ramadhin (@realtalkshivon) is a psychotherapist/clinical social worker. Her goal with my clients is to build genuine connections and meet them where they are while pushing them to reach their goals. Her work addresses issues and symptoms including but not limited to depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, social stressors, micro-aggressions, racial trauma and life transitions.
Get in touch with Shivon here: www.therapywithshivon.com