Christina Sturdivant Sani, a 34-year-old living in the D.C. area, has been going to therapy since 2017. For years, she and her brothers had been suggesting that their mother, Helena Sturdivant, who is in her 50s, also talk to someone.
Helena, who is the youngest of six siblings — there is a 20-year gap between her and her oldest sister — said some of her older family members grew up in a “hush-hush” environment where issues were “bottled up.”
“That’s what I don’t want for me,” Helena said. “That’s not what I want for my family.”
Finally, last year, Helena agreed to do a couple of sessions of Zoom therapy alongside Christina. Helena said she wasn’t “closed” to the idea of therapy. But Christina suspects that Helena agreed to go to therapy together — to talk about some issues in their relationship — because her daughter held her accountable.
“I do commend her for going because it took decades for her to finally do it,” Christina said. “Our relationship is better for it.”
For Helena, the experience was like a “lightbulb” moment. “When Christina was talking, there were some things she said that I felt like, ‘Wow,’ because when I heard it [I thought] if someone had said that to me, I would feel the exact same way,” she said. “It was, to me, a session of breakthrough and understanding.”
Like Christina, many adult children are trying to convince their baby boomer parents to do what’s less stigmatized in the millennial and Gen Z generations: Talk to a therapist. Thirty-seven percent of Gen Zers and 35 percent of millennials — dubbed the “therapy generation” — report that they’ve seen a mental health professional, compared with 22 percent of baby boomers. “My parents need therapy” is the stuff of viral tweets and memes among these younger generations.
Sarah Noel, a licensed mental health counselor in New York, explained why there might be resistance to therapy among boomers, or those who were born between 1946 and 1964.
“There was, at the time that they were young adults, a much greater emphasis on privacy, and you keep things to yourself, and you deal with things yourself,” she said. “In contrast to that, millennials have mostly grown up with the Internet and social media, and encouraged to share much of themselves publicly. For boomers, there’s just something quite uncomfortable about that.”
That potential discomfort means some children of baby boomers take it upon themselves to try to get their parents to see the value of therapy — and even understand what it is. That’s why Ebheni Henderson tried to demystify it for her mom. The 21-year-old from Texas said she has gone to therapy herself since high school, and explained the difference between a psychiatrist (who can focus on medication management) and a therapist or psychologist (who can focus on emotion management and behavioral changes) to her mother.
Last year, Henderson tweeted that her mom “finally agreed” to go to therapy. It made her realize the extent of stigma around therapy in general, she said. “There’s a lot of, ‘Oh, what do you have to be depressed about, you have food, you have clothes, I pay for everything.’ [Parents] feel like you’re invalidating everything they’ve done for you by going to therapy,” she said.
Bettina, a 27-year-old from Boston, found that sharing her own experience with therapy helped reshape her mother’s thinking. She explained that therapy has helped her manage the stress of being in law school. (Bettina is being identified by her first name to protect the privacy of her family, and her mother declined to comment for this story.)
“I think just her listening to me talk, she opened up about her own traumas,” Bettina said. Her mom, who is in her 50s and was born in the Philippines, said she’d never talked much about her issues before, for fear that she would be “judged.” Bettina explained that therapy is a nonjudgmental experience.
Her mom has since started going to therapy, and Bettina said she can now “let things go a little bit easier.” Bettina believes that her mother’s culture and upbringing played a role in her initial hesitancy.
“I have a lot of other friends whose parents are also immigrants,” Bettina said. “Our parents’ generation seems to never want to talk about what they’ve gone through.”
Suzan Ahmed, a clinical psychologist in Washington state, works with immigrants and the children of immigrants in her practice. She is an immigrant herself, as are her Sudanese and Filipino parents, and said that she hears about this shame or guilt around seeking therapy often.
“Partly, the common experience of stigma is related to the collectivistic nature of a lot of these non-American cultures, where the way you present in the world, or how you behave or carry yourself is a reflection of your parents, or your family’s reputation or status in the community,” she said.
There are other reasons people might be hesitant to try therapy. For Henderson’s family, she said, it came down to the fact that “in the Black community, [some people think] our therapy should be going to church” — which is why she believes some of her family members have been resistant to seeking out professional help.
Ahmed said that talking about the therapy experience, like Bettina and Henderson did, can “normalize” it. “There’s the potential that this might model for family members that therapy is a good thing,” she said. And in her own practice, she said she talks to patients about their spirituality and religious beliefs, and emphasizes that therapy is “just another form of getting support.”
But challenges may persist after this initial hurdle, according to Ahmed. “It’s hard for people to find a therapist, period, who is available, let alone someone who might share a cultural identity [with them],” she said. Online databases, such as Inclusive Therapists, can help people find a therapist based on cultural knowledge, languages spoken, ethnic identity and more.
Indeed, “fit,” as well as cost, can be barriers to everyone finding a therapist. Noel encourages people to look into whether health insurance companies provide payment and reimbursement for telehealth — this is common during the pandemic — and to explore training institutes where clients can speak to mental health providers who have completed their graduate programs.
But for any number of reasons, some parents might continue to resist going to therapy. According to Noel, children shouldn’t see that as a failure.
“It’s really just about saying: ‘I tried, I did the best I could. This is affecting me, this isn’t about me,’ ” Noel said. She said it’s important for people to look at their relationship with their parents and ask themselves: What is something positive I can get from this relationship?
That could be a shared hobby, she said, or something as simple as just watching movies together.
But in Christina Sturdivant Sani’s case, encouraging her mother to take a chance on therapy paid off: Helena is now actively searching for a therapist for herself.
“I think it would be good [to go], even if I just went one time,” Helena said. “I really feel like I would like to talk to someone neutral.”
“My children play a significant role, period, in overall how I view things,” Helena continued. “Just talking to them in general in life, hearing their perspective on different things, is refreshing.”