Management of race in psychotherapy and supervision


Back to the webinar

In anticipating the residents’ curiosity, impatience, and anger about the lack of progress, the second thing we did was to show a segment from the “Black Psychoanalysts Speak” trailer. In the clip played, senior psychoanalyst Kirkland C. Vaughans, PhD, shares: “The issue of race so prompts excessive anxiety that it blocks off our ability to think.”

We showed this clip to validate the trainees’ frustrations about the difficulty the broader establishment has had with addressing this serious, longstanding public health problem. We wanted these young psychiatrists to know that there are psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers who have been committed to this work, even though the contributions of this diverse group have curiously been omitted from education and training curricula.9

Dr. Jessica Isom, a staff psychiatrist at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Mass., and Boston Medical Center.

Dr. Jessica Isom

So, what happened? What was the painful reminder? After the formal panel presentations, a black male psychiatry resident recounted his experience in a clinical supervision meeting that had occurred several days after the murder of George Floyd. In short, a patient had shared his reactions to yet another incident of fatal police use of force and paused to ask how the resident physician, Dr. A., was doing. The question was experienced as sincere concern about the psychiatrist’s mental well-being. The resident was not sure how to answer this question since it was a matter of self-disclosure, which was a reasonable and thoughtful consideration for a seasoned clinician and, certainly, for a novice therapist. The supervisor, Dr. B., seemingly eager to move on, to not think about this, responded to the resident by saying: “Now tell me about the patient.” In other words, what had just been shared by the resident – material that featured a patient’s reaction to another killing of a black man by police and the patient’s expressed concern for his black psychiatrist, and this resident physician appropriately seeking space in supervision to process and receive guidance about how to respond – all of this was considered separate (split off from) and extraneous to the patient’s treatment and the resident’s training. This is a problem. And, unfortunately, this problem or some variation of it is not rare.

Why is this still the state of affairs when we have identified racism as a major health concern and our patients and our trainees are asking for help?

Rethinking a metaphor

Despite calls to action over the last 50 years to encourage medicine to effectively address race and racism, deficits remain in didactic education, clinical rotations, and supervisory experiences of trainees learning how to do psychodynamic psychotherapy.8-10 Earlier that evening, we used the metaphor of a vehicular blind spot to capture what we believe occurs insupervision. Like drivers, supervisors generally have the ability to see. However, there are places (times) and positions (stances) that block their vision (awareness). Racism – whether institutionalized, interpersonally mediated, or internalized – also contributes to this blindness.

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