PEACE AND MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE; Integrating Racial Identity Theory in a Multicultural Psychology Course

By E, Chalmer | Transformations, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

PEACE AND MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE; Integrating Racial Identity Theory in a Multicultural Psychology Course


E, Chalmer, Transformations


A real "force" in psychological theory, multiculturalism in counseling and psychotherapy began in the United States in the 1960s. In its formative years, multicultural psychology literature consisted of conceptual writings that urged practitioners to recognize the impact of culture on psychological development. Scholars also encouraged professionals to examine the influence of racism and other sociopolitical forces on psychological functioning and mental health practice, pointing to evidence of racial bias in treatment delivery (Atkinson, Thompson, and Grant 258). In the decades that preceded the movement, scholars such as Kenneth and Mamie Clark and Frantz Fanon cautioned white practitioners to be aware not only of the damaging effects of racism on blacks, but also of the fact that, as beneficiaries of a racist status quo, whites are prone to perpetuate an unfair system of racial stratification. In the past three decades, contemporary scholars have elaborated on these theoretical insights to inform practices of psychologists and other mental health professionals (Helms 9).

The most prominent among the theorists of racial identity development is Janet E. Helms, author of Black and White Racial Identity and co-author (with Donelda Cook) of Using Race and Culture in Counseling and Psychotherapy. Helms establishes that racism shapes the psychological development of all persons who live and function in racialized societies like the United States. According to Helms, white people's investment in their stature at the top position of a constructed racial hierarchy perpetrates racist ideology. These investments, which varies behaviorally, influences institutional structures like law-making and conventional language use. People of color can respond by distrusting whites or by internalizing their inferior status in the hierarchy. Helms defines racial identity development as the extent to which people of all racial groups vary in how they respond to or behave in synchrony with racism (qtd. in Thompson and Carter 35).When people develop advanced schemata in racial identity, they also are able to develop constructive ways to work against social injustice in general.

As a psychologist, community activist, and educator, I am drawn to Helms' theory because over the past sixteen years I have witnessed in research and practice two remarkable phenomena. One, I have repeatedly observed how both clients and research participants unfairly appraise themselves and others in order to alleviate their personal distress and esteem. Two, I have seen clients and subjects relinquish this strategy of appraisal and experience positive changes in how they cope with problems. I have also observed that the use of racial identity theory in therapy facilitates healthy ways of coping more than the use of tactics that falsely inflate the person's worth by diminishing the worth of others (Thompson and Isaac 133).

In terms of mental health treatment, facilitating racial identity development promotes positive mental health. This development is characterized by coping behaviors in which there is an ability to approach rather than avoid painful situations, by discussing racism to impart and gain understanding, or by taking risks to comprehend one's irrational fears about people from different identity groups. In contrast to fixated or repressed development, progression in racial identity results in an increased ability to accept and cope with reality, to view the world and its contents complexly (and not only as influenced by racism), and to develop appreciation for self and others (Helms 15).

This essay describes how I have integrated racial identity theory in teaching graduate students about the relevance of culture and structural oppression to psychological development and functioning. I incorporate the theory to help promote an understanding of mental health as informed by social justice perspectives and to encourage students to see their roles in building cultures of peace. …

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PEACE AND MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE; Integrating Racial Identity Theory in a Multicultural Psychology Course
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