Trigger warning: Mentions anxiety and depression

As we’ve started to see a recent culture shift towards openness about therapy, more and more of us are finally admitting: Yes, I do need to talk to a professional. But even after taking the step of acknowledging that we need help, and despite the fact that the benefits of therapy are quite well-documented, the act of actually finding a therapist who’s a good fit can be a mentally overwhelming roadblock in and of itself for those of us with a host of marginalized identities.

My personal journey with professional therapy began in college, when, after my anxiety slowly built up during the fall, I reached what I felt was a breaking point in the winter of my freshman year. After my suite-mates noticed I was becoming nocturnal, and my best friend had to drag me out of bed for class at 3:30pm more often than not, I decided to give our campus Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) center a try.

As is the case for many other students, it was an absolute disaster for me. After struggling with a massive waiting list just to be seen at all, I found myself feeling dismissed and belittled, as if I were a nuisance. In a quest to stop judging myself, I felt judged by the very people I had asked to help me – how dare I, a student at a hyper-privileged institution, have the audacity to have depression and ask for help? The experience scared me off of therapy, and I ended up just wrestling with my prescribed anti-depressants and googling self-care tips on my own for two more years, somehow managing by the skin of my teeth until I felt like I was close to crashing again my senior year.

When I realized I was a walking trash fire and could no longer just dump on my friends, I decided to give therapy another shot. This time, I made sure not to underplay my mental state, and not let anyone on intake minimize what I was feeling either. After a referral to the lesser-publicized sliding scale clinic on campus, I made sure to stress that I didn’t just want, but needed a therapist who was a woman of color. By some miracle, they managed to pair me with a therapist who was a Bangladeshi Muslim like me, despite there only being a handful of us on campus.

When I graduated and moved across the country, I again put off finding a therapist. The same anxieties about finding someone who understood me outweighed the day-to-day depression and anxiety that I lived with. When I finally started making calls, I was horribly disappointed. Despite the fact that I had called a clinic that seemed promising and specifically requested a woman of color, the time slots I had provided as my availability meant that only a white woman was available.

With the baggage of culturally incompetent therapy experiences weighing heavy in my head, I nearly canceled my first appointment.

With the baggage of culturally incompetent therapy experiences weighing heavy in my head, I nearly canceled my first appointment. But that morning, I had an intense panic attack – over the minuscule problem of not being able to locate a pair of pants in my closet – and I knew I couldn’t put it off. I walked into the clinic with way more trepidation than hope but I walked out feeling completely the opposite way.

Besides greeting me, the very first thing my new therapist did was acknowledge that she didn’t fit the description I had specifically asked for. She didn’t try to dodge the elephant in the room. Instead, she addressed it head-on, and in doing so, extended a branch for creating trust between us. She had the necessary professional credentials, and, as I learned, an extensive background in working with queer clients and BIPOC clients. It was just up to me: Could I keep an open mind and try to at least trust her?

I’d like to think it was because I’m an accepting person. But realistically I was just tired of being tired. Either way, I decided to try and keep an open mind that afternoon, and I’m so glad I did. We built up a relationship over the past year that’s been incredibly fulfilling and rewarding in terms of my personal growth, to the point where I was able to feel confident enough with the base she helped me build inside myself that I could take a break from therapy and take an international work opportunity for 6 months. I know I was able to be at this point because of the partnership we built together when I set aside my predispositions and dove in headfirst.

It’s been a long journey, and mental health will always continue to be one for me. But I guess if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that finding a good therapist is like finding a good pair of jeans: Sometimes, you just have to go through the effort of searching and trying on different options that don’t make you feel your best until you find one that really fits. Keeping an open mind about therapy and who I was partnering with on the journey was one of the hardest, but most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

If you’re struggling to pick up the phone, take a moment to write out your fears. They are valid, and they’re likely not impossible to overcome. Then take a few deep breaths, and pick up your phone to do that intake. Even if it takes a few tries, it’ll get easier every time. I believe in you – and future you will be glad you did, too.

  • Sumaia Masoom

    Sumaia Masoom is the proud daughter of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants and a graduate of Northwestern University's School of Education & Social Policy. A product of rural Wisconsin and later the Chicago immigrant & refugee rights organizing community, she's equal parts passionate about college sports and diversity & inclusion – of identities, em-dashes, and free food in lunch meetings.