Race, Culture and HSPs: “Black People Don’t Do Therapy”

I am no doubt an HSP. I’ve read Elaine Aron’s wonderful and eye-opening books, I’ve taken the quizzes in the workbooks and I’ve been greatly helped by much of the advice given on HSP websites and by knowing that I’m not alone. And like very many HSPs I’ve suffered bouts of depression and very high anxiety, the type that requires professional help. Yet there’s still this nagging feeling I always have, one I have to constantly temper, that my sensitivity and the symptoms it causes are just my “weaknesses,” and that I have to work hard to not let my weaknesses show. Now I know this is just negative self-talk, which any white person who is also HSP can relate to, but my feelings and self-talk are largely influenced racially and culturally as is true for many black people.

Black People And Sensitivity

Admitting to and showing great sensitivity is a no no in my (Black American) culture.  Being “tough” and not “letting it ‘get’ to me” are what I was always encouraged and at times, demanded to do. I can still remember my dad screaming at me, “You got a WEAKNESS!” when I was about 12-years-old and being picked on at school. My mother would threaten to hit me if I ever cried. And since we customarily “take over” for our parents as adults and end up treating ourselves just as well or as badly as they did, I got to the point in my late 30s where I couldn’t leave the house without having a four-alarm panic attack and the bravest thing I could do was seek treatment. I could no longer function in that anxious, unbalanced state. All that “not letting it show” made me physically, and severely psychologically and emotionally sick. So even though seeking help put me in a category that is downright scary to contemplate (according to a recent Al Jazeera America special report, black people are half as likely to seek treatment for anxiety, depression or any other mental health-related issue as Whites), I had to save my sanity and my life. I weighed 112 pounds. I needed help. I was sick.

Black People And Therapy

According to a paper published by the National Institutes of Health in 2008, many people of color who end up seeking treatment stated that it was the need to get well that triumphed over the opinions of the family and community when it came to seeking treatment, and often at the crisis stage.

112 pounds! Panic attacks! Hello?!??

Jinneh Dyson, now senior manager of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, VA, had debilitating depression while at college in Texas and rejected the idea of therapy for years. Loved ones would say, “That’s going to make you crazy. You’ve just got to pray and have faith,” recalled Dyson, who is Black and the daughter of a Baptist minister. “They said, ‘That’s the way of the white man, poisoning you.'”

But guess what? I’m not religious. And I’m intelligent enough to know that neither God nor prayer can stop a serious panic attack. Therefore, I, like Ms. Dyson, sought treatment.

The statistics are pretty scary:

  • African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites;
  • Non-Hispanic Whites are more than twice as likely to receive antidepressant prescription treatment as are Non-Hispanic Blacks;
  • A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233%, as compared to 120% of Non-Hispanic Whites.

Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many other stress-related illnesses also affect Black Americans more adversely. This is no accident.  Therefore, it must be discussed and taken into account that all the anxiety and overstimulation affecting our community, and in particular those of us with highly sensitive natures, are large factors in these adverse medical outcomes, and can be addressed lovingly and effectively through good therapy.

Of course, race and culture weren’t the only factors in my getting sick. There was the job I lost, there was losing my sister, and losing the romantic relationship I was in at around the same time; there was even my lack of understanding about how important it is to my HSP nature to eat healthy, organic food and exercise regularly. Yet, I wasn’t thinking about those things when I opened the door to this new therapy center. I was thinking about connecting with someone of my culture, who speaks my cultural “language” and regularly uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in her practice, which I’ve been wanting to try (it’s the “doer” in me), to help patients with social anxiety, so that I don’t feel like such an alien in my brown skin anymore.

About Kellie Murphy

Kellie C. Murphy is a freelance journalist specializing in politics, health, arts, culture and fitness. "Like" her on Facebook and follow her on her Twitter profile KCMJournalist.


  1. Veronica Waithe on January 4, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    First of all thank you so much for sharing. I always thought it must be very rare to be black HSP in the Americas. I couldn’t imagine anyone with this trait surviving the middle passage.

    I am a black HSP. I too found the black community I grew up in to be insensitive to my trait. I was often bullied and called too sensitive. I suffered from panic and anxiety for most of my life. I often felt my social and emotional needs were neglected by my parents. I was teased by my siblings . I felt moslty isolated and alone as a child and young adult. So I started just surrounding myself with people who I felt appreciated and supported my sensitivity irregardless of race, religion, age, or differences of any kind. I had to open myself to people beyond the community I was born into in order to end the isolation . Now I feel more connected to myself and have friends that I feel close to. I still have seasons of needing to be alone . But now I know I don’t have to be.

    • Maria Hill on January 4, 2019 at 5:59 pm

      What a lovely story, Veronica. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Syreta Boothe on March 8, 2020 at 4:34 am

    I am slightly disturbed by this article and at the same time don’t want to criticize the work of the writer. I apologize if my words come across in a harmful way (not my intention.)

    There is a lot deeper insight that goes into the perspective on ‘weakness’ and ‘therapy’ for some black people. A history that is different from many other races. A historic and current undertone of systematic oppression. Lack of good education or any education for many. Solid community resources or lack of funds to afford therapies or even know about them.

    With all of the minuses of being black in a society that often casts us out PRAYER and GOD have been the backbone and only source of help for many black people. Who are you to say that neither God or prayer can stop a serious panic attack!?

    It was words of God being chanted that became music that helped many black slaves get through the day of work. You think being a slave wasn’t anxiety enducing??? You think those chants / hymns didn’t help to stop many from going crazy?? And there is so much more to God and how He alone has been sought out and reverenced and counted as the only source for many black people.

    Maybe that has not worked for you but I can testify that there have been times I did not remember God in moments of anxiety but will certainly say there are times I have and saying Psalm 27, Psalm 23 just repeated the name ‘Jesus’ has comforted me many many times. Born in 1980, I tell you that God is still the only thing that keeps me going. I am also thankful that God has created man that make medicines and therapies to assist our ‘conditions’.

    I understand you are hurt by the way your family may not have been able to celebrate who are. What are the reasons for that? Life is hard and perhaps their idea of strong and being able to succeed in life is what they had hoped to prepare you for in the way that they knew.

    I am disappointed that someone from the black community would make us look so ignorant and dumb without presenting a bit of insight into our ‘miseducation’ and traumatizing history that contribute to some of those perspectives and comments.

    Peace be with us all.

    • Maria Hill on March 8, 2020 at 7:01 am

      Our focus here is very much on sensitivity and I think the author was addressing that specifically, because that aspect is not addressed often if at all. I believe she was writing from her specific experience. Also addressing black history in one article would likely be superficial since it is such a deep and rich history. I think she was making a point only about being a sensitive black woman.I hope this helps.