For Us, By Us: Navigating Mental Wellness as Black Americans

The notion of mental wellness for Black people by Black people has always been extremely important, and how we heal has been an ongoing conversation in the Black community for centuries. 

When I became a psychotherapist, my goal was contributing to the normalization of mental wellness in the Black community—not just for those who identify as black, but for everyone who overlooks the emotions, feelings, joys, and traumas experienced by Black people. COVID-19 proved to hit the Black American community the hardest, with medical professionals succinctly stating that it isn’t race that serves as a risk factor, but rather the state of how Black lives are treated. 

Mental wellness is inherently linked to this: The lower our stress levels, the stronger our immune system. Yet, nothing about mental wellness for Black folks is simple. 

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a cop in broad daylight, and it was caught on video—prompting a series of worldwide protests. The validity of Black lives has been met with much confusion for the duration of America’s lifetime, but make no mistake, this confusion is a choice. George Floyd’s murder was less than 2 months after Breonna Taylor was murdered in her own home. This was decades—centuries—after too many fatal police brutalities against the Black community. 

And now, suddenly, my Instagram feed is filled with content surrounding Mr. Floyd’s murder, from grief to outrage and many who were silent during dozens of other murders of unarmed Black folks speaking up. White acquaintances have sent me paragraphs about how sick they’ve felt, asking what they could do to be a part of the change. Well-meaning white loved ones send me text messages, asking how I am doing and sharing how upset they are. There are gratuitous Instagram posts with white business owners divulging their complicity in anti-blackness. 

It’s been infuriating and overwhelming. It’s been hard. Extremely hard. Suddenly many have become so much more aware that the collective hate propelled towards Black Americans is commonplace. I have always loved my Black ancestry. And now, I’m being forced to consume a sudden, very public reckoning, from many who have generationally and discreetly lacked love, care, and support for Black folks. 

As a psychotherapist, it was abundantly clear that I was experiencing a form of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is what happens when someone has indirect exposure to a traumatic incident. It can be through a detailed description, a firsthand account, or video footage. Symptoms of secondary trauma are similar to PTSD, and include feeling numb, physically exhausted, and the impulse to engage in self-destructive coping mechanisms. My body was heavy, and my mind was slower than the buffering of a YouTube video in a no-signal zone. It took every ounce of energy in my body to ensure I was eating regularly and drinking enough water. 

While I am a professional and have the benefit of a large network, an abundance of loved ones, a therapist, and a rolodex of coping tools that I know work for me, everyone doesn’t have that. Thus, here I am to share a few things for those who identify as Black and are experiencing race-based trauma. 

First, boundaries are essential. And I mean, boundaries with everything. Consider limiting your news intake: Maybe only allow yourself to watch the news or scroll headlines for 30 minutes daily. The same concept applies to social media: If it is feeling overwhelming, set a timer to limit your media intake. Again, 30 minutes is a sweet spot for many, but if that is too minimal of time, no shame in your game. 

Boundaries also apply with who you engage with and how. It is never a Black person’s job to educate anyone. Remember this. Keep it close to your heart. Start practicing these loving boundaries in order to protect yourself. 

Next up, do you drink enough water? Do you eat regular meals? How has your caffeine intake been? Your answers to each of these may serve as an indicator of the psychomotor agitation you’re feeling or are not feeling. As a general rule of thumb, drink more water than you need always, but especially when coping with the effects of race-based trauma. 

If cooking or eating regular meals is feeling difficult, ask a friend if they can bring over some takeout, smoothie ingredients, or even frozen meals. How is your sleep? Are you binge-watching Insecure until you fall asleep at 3 a.m. or am I just projecting? Either way, engaging in light-hearted entertainment that centers Black life in all of its glory is medicine. I also suggest Yvonne Orji’s recent comedy special. Consider reading too, rather than consuming media, before bed. Apparently reading for one hour before bed can reduce stress by 68%. Friendly suggestion to read something that is alchemizing for the soul: All About Love by Bell Hooks, is always a good choice.  

How is your community supporting you? Do you identify as Black but don’t have a community of Black folks around you? I love Therapy for Black Girls because there is a digital community and a free online Facebook group. Can you set up a weekly Zoom check-in with a group of trusted friends? Anything to cultivate a safe sense of community is so useful. 

Let’s dig into some meditation. Liberate is a meditation app designed by people of color for people of color, with meditations devoted to ancestral connection, microaggressions, grief, and more. They range from 2 minutes to as long as 30 minutes. Some of the shorter meditations are great for when you simply just need to take some deep breaths and regulate your body. If you are able-bodied, how do you feel about engaging in some light movement? Koya Webb is an incredible Black yoga teacher who even has a session on yoga for mental health

If you don’t have a therapist, there has never been a more important time to have one. Open Path Collective has a diverse range of therapists who offer sessions for $30 to $60. Therapy for Black Girls has an incredible directory of therapists. Inclusive Therapists is a directory of inclusive therapists, meaning there is an array of Black providers. The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network has a national QTPoC therapist directory. Don’t be afraid to ask for sliding scale rates if finances are a concern.

Race-based trauma is painful, but it isn’t our existence. It is our birthright to heal, not just for ourselves, but for those who came before us and those who come after us. We gon’ be alright.

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