Decolonizing Mental Health with Alison Gerig ‘94

Alison Gerig ‘94 recently gave a talk about her journey to decolonize mental health. This event was cosponsored by the departments of psychology, sociology, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, the Women’s and Gender Resource Center, the Office of LGBTQ Services, and the Popel Shaw Center for Race and Ethnicity. For 11 years, Alison was the executive director of The Therapy Center in Philadelphia, a therapy practice that employs therapists who use feminist, anti-racist, and queer-affirming modalities.

Counseling is a field that has racist roots. The field has historically failed to acknowledge the ways that systems of oppression impact mental health and the ways that individuals navigate the world around them, all while using white, cisgender men as the standard when diagnosing mental health conditions.

Alison discussed the various identities that she holds, and the privileges associated with those identities. These identities include being white, mostly able-bodied, of generational wealth, and cisgender. She described that these are identities that she might bring into a clinical session with a client, which is considered radical as most therapy training programs will not teach you to do so. Still, Alison is of the mind that acknowledging her personal identities is critical as she works towards decolonizing the field of mental health. She rejects the idea that therapy does not involve politics, drawing from the feminist idea that “the personal is political.”

Alison majored in psychology at Dickinson. She recalled that psychology courses had been taught in a way that attempted to create an objective reality for all people without acknowledging intersectionality, or the way that intersecting identities coupled with interlocking systems of oppression go on to produce individual realities. While the psychology department at Dickinson is by no means perfect, I can definitely attest to the fact that the department has come a long way, as almost all of my psychology courses have addressed intersectionality in some way.

Alison discussed white fragility, and how difficult it can be for white folks to acknowledge and be held accountable for the harm they have inflicted upon Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This is especially true in the field of counseling, as therapists are uniquely positioned to inflict harm upon BIPOC individuals, who are placed in an especially vulnerable position when receiving counseling services. Alison emphasized that this potential for harm means that BIPOC clients deserve a therapist that shares their racial identity and racialized experiences whenever possible.

I wished the event had been longer – students had many thoughtful questions to ask, and the conversation that arose following the main portion of Alison’s presentation was really engaging. The event even gave me some ideas to consider in my independent study this semester, where I am writing a literature review on cultural competence among health care providers who are proving care to LGBTQ clients.

To learn more about Alison and her work integrating anti-racism into psychotherapy, you can visit her website.

Written by Julia Kagan ’22, WGRC student worker