Commentary

Management of race in psychotherapy and supervision


 

On the Friday evening after the public execution of George Floyd, we were painfully reminded of the urgency to address the inadequate management of race, racism, and anti-blackness in medical education, residency training, and postgraduate continuing medical education.

Dr. Constance E. Dunlap, George Washington University, Washington

Dr. Constance E. Dunlap

The reminder did not originate from the rioting that was occurring in some cities, though we could feel the ground shifting beneath our feet as civic protests that began in U.S. cities spread around the globe. Instead, it occurred during a webinar we were hosting for psychiatry residents focused on techniques for eliminating blind spots in the management of race in clinical psychotherapy supervision. (Dr. Jessica Isom chaired the webinar, Dr. Flavia DeSouza and Dr. Myra Mathis comoderated, and Dr. Ebony Dennis and Dr. Constance E. Dunlap served as discussants.)

Our panel had presented an ambitious agenda that included reviewing how the disavowal of bias, race, racism, and anti-blackness contributes to ineffective psychotherapy, undermines the quality of medical care, and perpetuates mental health disparities. We spent some time exploring how unacknowledged and unexamined conscious and unconscious racial stereotypes affect interpersonal relationships, the psychotherapeutic process, and the supervisory experience. Our presentation included a clinical vignette demonstrating how racism, colorism, and anti-blackness have global impact, influencing the self-esteem, identity formation, and identity consolidation of immigrants as they grapple with the unique form of racism that exists in America. Other clinical vignettes demonstrated blind spots that were retroactively identified though omitted in supervisory discussions. We also discussed alternative interventions and interpretations of the material presented.1-5

Dr. Ebony Dennis, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who practices in Washington

Dr. Ebony Dennis

Because 21st-century trainees are generally psychologically astute and committed to social justice, we did two things. First, before the webinar, we provided them access to a prerecorded explanation of object relations theorist Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions concepts, which were applied to theoretically explain the development of race, specifically the defenses used by early colonists that contributed to the development of “whiteness” and “blackness” as social constructs, and their influence on the development of the U.S. psyche. For example, as early colonists attempted to develop new and improved identities distinct from those they had in their homelands, they used enslaved black people (and other vulnerable groups) to “other.” What we mean here by othering is the process of using an other to project one’s badness into in order to relieve the self of uncomfortable aspects and feelings originating within the self. If this other accepts the projection (which is often the case with vulnerable parties), the self recognizes, that is, identifies (locates) the bad they just projected in the other, who is now experienced as a bad-other. This is projection in action. If the other accepts the projection and behaves accordingly, for example, in a manner that reflects badness, this becomes projective identification. Conversely, if the other does not accept these projections, the self (who projects) is left to cope with aspects of the self s/he might not have the capacity to manage. By capacity, we are speaking of the Bionian idea of the ability to experience an extreme emotion while also being able to think. Without the ego strength to cope with bad aspects of the self, the ego either collapses (and is unable to think) or further projection is attempted.6-8

Dr. Flavia DeSouza is a PGY-4 psychiatry resident and public psychiatry fellow in the department of psychiatry at Yale University, New Haven, Conn

Dr. Flavia DeSouza

We have seen this latter dynamic play out repeatedly when police officers fatally shoot black citizens and then claim that they feared for their lives; these same officers have been exonerated by juries by continuing to portray the deceased victims as threatening, dangerous objects not worthy of living. We are also seeing a global movement of black and nonblack people who are in touch with a justified rage that has motivated them to return these projections by collectively protesting, and in some cases, by rioting.

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