7 Mental Health Tips For Black Folks From Black Therapists

The pain of the past few weeks and beyond has come to a breaking point, with cities across the globe erupting in protests against senseless violence and injustice.

On a macro-level, it’s a time of community urgency shifting towards seismic change, coinciding with a moment when Black folks are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. On a micro-level, many Black individuals are left to grapple with what this moment means for them personally.

We asked Black therapists what advice they have for Black folks as they care for their mental health during difficult times. Here are seven educational and actionable tips they shared with us.

Black woman with gold braids wearing a coat

1. Recognize racial trauma as a mental health issue

Trauma in mental health is defined as a psychological reaction to an intensely distressing experience, and in racial trauma, this is marked by racially-driven experiences.

Racial trauma can be felt at a historical and community level -- for example, intergenerational traumas passed down through unconscious cues or messages -- as well as on a personal level through media exposure to high-profile killings and direct experiences of discrimination.

Racial trauma can be instigated by a sudden violent incident, or by ongoing fear of threat, microaggressions, and vicarious experiences.

The repeated exposure to violent acts – whether via witnessing firsthand or repeated media coverage – certainly fall into these definitions. Especially when accumulated, these can cause psychological trauma for many Black folks.

Though racial trauma is still a developing field of study, it’s understood to share similarities with other types of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Consider if you may be experiencing any of the following symptoms of racial trauma:

Giving a name to painful experiences can help make sense of the emotional or physiological symptoms you may be having, as well as develop an understanding as to how you might address these challenges.

2. Find personal meaning to re-establish a sense of control

While the negative effects of trauma on mental health are well-documented, a psychological model called Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) also suggests the potential for positive change following traumatic life events. This approach acknowledges the resilience and growth that can occur after a trauma, and ways in which an individual can derive meaning from the event that transcends the painful experience.

It’s important to note that the presence of growth doesn't exclude or minimize the impact of the trauma and its aftereffects: the pain, grief, suffering, and distress are still very much felt. However, finding meaning can give individuals a sense of purpose to persevere, grow, and heal from trauma and systems of oppression.

As Dr. Melba Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in New York City, explains: “A both/and approach of remembering the generations of wisdom that have stood for Black lives and noting the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress that are natural reactions to systemic oppression are required. It is as important to acknowledge the resilience and resistance of black people; we wouldn't be here if that wasn't the truth of who we are.”

She adds: “Survival strategies are warranted: fighting against, fleeing/avoiding, bracing/enduring, freezing/numbing/dissociating, and over/undercontrolling. Thriving, healing practices are available: standing with and for our lives, turning toward, changing what we can, tapping into individual and collective power and wisdom, and flexible boundaries is necessary. Now more than ever, our ancestors want us to thrive.”

In the current situation of police brutality and injustices in the criminal justice system, Eliza Jaquez, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in New York City, proposes engaging in acts of social justice.

She explains that taking such action “helps counter the sense of helplessness that may be prominent during times of trauma, and also aids in re-establishing a sense of control.”

Jaquez suggests the following actions as examples of ways you can engage in social justice:

Get curious about ways of finding and contributing to personal meaning that feel authentic and impactful to you, and consider integrating them as a part of your healing process.

3. Validate and express your feelings through social supports

Dr. Nefertiti Nowell, a psychologist in Chicago, reminds Black folks of the importance of validating their experiences: “Know that your feelings are valid. Many of us keep our emotions locked away and tucked down so that there will not be an accusation of being the "Angry Black Person.” However, know and realize that suppressing emotions can often make them feel more intense than when you allow yourself to feel them. Feeling overwhelmed with emotion is okay.”

Social supports are an important component to trauma recovery, and can provide an outlet healing, especially in a moment when we’re disconnected by circumstance.

As Dr. Nowell explains, “Talking out your feelings with someone who is able to hear you may allow you to feel supported and not feel the need to suppress your emotions. Use this time to define who your community of support is and use these connections to feel safe.”

You may consider connecting with family and friends, finding common ground with those who have been advocating for change or joining groups that provide a sense of community and solidarity.

Dr. Sullivan suggests the following resources to consider:

4. Take a moment to self-soothe, care for your body, and rest

Dr. Nowell reminds Black folks to take a moment to self-soothe.

“There are a range of emotions that are being felt right now, and you have a right to feel all of them,” she says. “However, do not let your emotions hijack you. Self soothing is finding a way to get back to your center and be grounded, even when the world around you is in an upheaval.”

Dr. Nowell recommends writing out the self-soothing activities that work best for you so that they’re ready to reference whenever you’re feeling stressed, sad, or simply in need of a reset.

“Take an hour to write a list of the positive things that bring you peace and joy,” she advises. “The list should be as long as possible so that when you feel out of sorts, you can use these things to calm down. For example, you may enjoy music, walking, art, prayer, reading, or mentoring others. The list should include things that are accessible to you.”

Jaquez also recommends prioritizing exercise, given the numerous studies demonstrating a positive correlation between exercise and mental health. “Exercise produces changes in the brain and can impact anxiety, stress, depression and sleeplessness – symptoms commonly reported during this time,” she says.

Mindfulness and meditation may also prove beneficial during this time, adds Jaquez, since these practices produce positive changes in the brain by calming down fight-or-flight impulses triggered by anxiety, stress and trauma. Importantly, “meditation also strengthens the ability to process and manage our thoughts and feelings,” she says.

Prioritizing and even pre-planning your self-care will also allow you to more actively engage in the present moment, avoid activist burnout, and promote longer-term sustainability in any social justice work you’re engaged in. Dr. Sullivan recommends “incorporating rest, and working within the community to rotate and create space for members to rest as well.”

Here are a list of self-soothing tools for you to consider:

Black woman with pink hair meditating, with her hands in prayer position

5. Connect with your spirituality and faith

Spirituality can provide hope, community, and guidance, and have a profound impact on your emotional wellbeing. Faith plays an important role in many Black communities, with Black folks sharing that faith is an essential component to their or their family member’s wellness.

Aaron Skinner-Spain, a therapist in New York City and group practice owner for NYC Affirmative Therapy, explains the powerful role that faith can play in providing guidance and a sense of community: “Spirituality can be many things, but above all, it is a practice that restores Black folks. Identifying and naming ways and forms of spirituality is a start to accessing guidance and support.”

In addition to a space of worship, religion can also provide outlets for validating and sharing experiences, processing emotional and psychological responses as a group, and coordinating instrumental responses to crises.

Consider if your church or place for spirituality provides remote services that you can attend!

6. Talk about mental healthcare openly where possible

Increasing visibility of mental health issues in Black communities can be a way to combat the stigma around mental health treatment, shares Amanda Jurist, a licensed clinical social worker in NYC. She adds that the previous years have brought a much-needed, mainstream conversation shift in raising awareness and normalizing treatment for mental health within the Black community.

“Community advocates, politicians, artists, radio personalities and mental health professionals have been working diligently to create safe spaces and facilitate conversations about the mental health stigmas that exist in our communities,” she says, while also normalizing and celebrating the benefits of seeking treatment.

Skinner-Spain wholeheartedly encourages those considering starting therapy, especially to discuss the impact of recent events on their mental health, adding “Yasss! For Black folks, therapy can be a powerful tool for liberation. We can start to look at the impact of racial trauma and find ways of healing within and from our communities that can aid in navigating an oppressive America.”

Dr. Sullivan agrees, adding that present events trigger past pain, which can “send us traveling through time.”  Therapy stands to create a space where you might come into a new relationship with yourself, your family, and your pain. It’s also an outlet, Dr. Sullivan says, for fostering connection to community – past, present, and future – as well as a personal sense of agency and dignity.

7. Remember that the burden is not all on you

Dr. Nefertiti reminds Black folks to remember that the movement is what you make of it.

“It would seem that this would be the perfect time to educate people on race relations – however, you do not owe anyone an answer,” she says. “In other words, to keep your sanity, you do not have to be put on the spot to define racism, explain how you feel, or respond to questions about the protest. You have the right to JUST BE!! That's the point for your sanity: just you being is a revolution!”

In the moment of community uprising, awakening, and mourning, we invite you to join us in setting aside 30min for restoration through the practice of Yoga Nidra. In partnership with Eve Blazo of Repose Therapy, we’re glad to offer a free virtual session of this meditative practice, which offers the opportunity to rest, reflect, and revive.If you’re considering building in therapy as a regular part of your self-care routine, you can find vetted Black therapists here; for additional support in this process, you can be matched with a Black therapist here.