Mental Health, A Cost to Strength
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
An interview with Dr. Akilah Reynolds, a clinical psychologist and Mental Health and Wellbeing expert, by Elizabeth Harris.
We can all agree, this past year of the pandemic has brought extra stress to lives, but it has also put a brighter spotlight on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. The Black Lives Matter movement, protesting police brutality and systematic racism brought Black mental health and wellbeing to the forefront of much of society.
Toastee Mag had the honor of speaking with Dr. Akilah Reynolds. Dr. Akilah is a psychologist at The Black Girl Doctor, a co-founder of SBW Wellness Collaborative, and a curriculum consultant for the University of California Los Angeles. A frequent contributor and public speaker, including being a guest on Taraji P. Henson’s show Peace of Mind, Dr. Akilah is a rising star that you will definitely be hearing more of in the future.
Dr. Akilah, Toastee is very proud to speak with such an accomplished and recognized psychologist, and advocate- can you describe how you got started in psychology and mental health?
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a psychologist. When I got into college I was an undeclared, undecided major. I had a lot of interests, and I used that time in college to try a lot of different things and see what worked well for me.
Originally, I started majoring in psychology because it was interesting to me. I ended up being a psychologist because I thought it was the best route to provide healthcare to help people in need and tackle a subject that I think is really important, but what is not always at the forefront - our mental health. It became about wanting to help myself because I felt there was a lot I could grow and learn about. I also wanted to help my family and to help my community. I’m a jack of many trades, and I have my hands in many things, and I have a lot of different interests. I thought psychology would allow me to multi-task, do multiple things, and nurse the many interests that I have.
As I went through a lot of schooling and training, I started to see myself grow. That’s when I really started to sip the kool-aid. Through my Master's degree, my Ph.D., and my 2 years at a post-doc fellowship, I think that during the process the biggest thing that would happen is that I would change, that I would grow, and that I would feel better.
I truly believe mental health is the bedrock of life’s success. The things that you want in life, you’re able to get those when you feel well emotionally. I want to see people live their dreams, I want to see people feel empowered, I want to see people live to live their best life. My way of helping, encouraging, and motivating is through mental health and psychology.
It’s been really good to see more efforts around the promotion of mental health in Black communities and trying to reduce the stigma. From your research and experience, how do you see mental health evolving and changing in Black communities?
When I was younger, it wasn’t something that was talked about. It was not talked about in the community or even talked about in my family. I never learned what to do with my emotions. I just experienced them, but I never had a way to channel them. I wasn’t taught to do that.
That's interesting because I come from a family that’s in the healthcare industry. They come from the physical side, but the mental health side just wasn’t talked about. The only time I learned or talked about mental health is when unfortunately you see people who are very mentally ill.
Particularly in the Black community, it’s something you really don't talk about. Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of people who sought treatment or got treatment. It was really stigmatized, and if you did need help, you were "crazy" basically.
What I have seen over time and through the beauty of me being a part of the field is that mental health is everything. The statistics are that about 1 out of 5 people may have a diagnosable mental illness or a mental disorder in a given year. But 5 out of 5 people have mental health. What I mean about that is we all have mental health, it’s a part of who we are. Whether or not you have a disorder, people do experience life challenges, and you want to make sure that you feel emotionally and mentally well.
Over the course of my life and my career, I've seen mental health generally in the public and the Black community starting to be talked about a lot more. I think the stigma is starting to be reduced. I don’t think it’s completely gone. I also think I have been around a lot of Black mental health professionals. I have the privilege to be so close to Black people who look at the mental health aspect of life so seriously. For me, that’s beautiful.
I had the honor of being a guest on a new show, Taraji P Henson's Peace of Mind on Facebook Watch, where Taraji and her best friend just tackle mental health issues. There is this big actress who champions mental health and who shares that she has a therapist herself. When she has guests on, she asks if they have a therapist. Her point is to destigmatize mental health in the Black community, provide education about different issues that impact the Black community, and encourage people to really take care of themselves.
Being part of that show and seeing what she’s been doing, gives me great pleasure and a great honor. I’m seeing that it's moving in the direction that people are being open and honest about mental health and that it's not stigmatized as much. Though, I do think we have a way to go.
Broadly speaking, it is a general understanding that Black communities face an overwhelming amount of stress when compared to White communities. Is this true and how has that affected mental health in Black communities?
There's research that indicates that racial trauma, stress, and minor aggressions have an impact on our emotional wellbeing. For many years Black people didn’t have the luxury, privilege, and maybe even the right to speak to be open and honest about how those things impact them emotionally. When you’re so focused on surviving in this country, some of the racial-ethnic stress and trauma is truly life or death. When you have to live like that, you’re in a mode where you’re focused on living, you’re focused on survival, whatever that looks like.
Now, when I look at research on the strong, independent Black female, there’s this movement or evolution of Black women, particularly- I think Black men as well but the research I focus on is Black women- that many people see this idea of strong as important. They’re also seeing the underbelly of strength comes at a cost.
Your humanity is wrapped up in being open and honest and honoring your emotions, setting boundaries, not taking on too much, and managing stress. When you deny yourself your humanity, you aren’t allowed to do those normal human things, and it comes at a cost emotionally. Depression, overeating, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders are all impacted by the level of stress and racial trauma that people experience.
I co-founded the SBW Wellness Collaborative with a friend and a researcher in this area. We go out and do community events and we talk with Black women who are interested in this work and understand the experience of strength. They understand why they have used this way of coping that is passed down, that Black people and Black women learned as a way to survive emotional trauma. They also recognize how it impacted them negatively emotionally, and they want more balance. They want more for themselves, and they want to be well. Giving them the space to do so, where they can put down strength, where they can be more flexible with their views of strength and decide that they don’t want to be that. I’ve seen many Black women become more open to interrogating what strength looks like in their lives, how it impacts them and being more open to doing something different.
You are highly focused on the role of community and research in the SBW Wellness Collaborative. What inspired you to start it?
It goes back to when I was in a doctoral program.
To tell you a little bit about my educational background, I have a 4-year degree in psychology. I first went to UC Irvine and then back to the Bay area to finish school at UC Berkeley. By that time, I had decided that I wanted to become a psychologist. So, I moved to the East Coast to New York City to go to Columbia University for my Master's in psychological counseling. From there, I hopped over to the University of Houston and got a Ph.D. in counseling psychology.
While I was at Houston, I really appreciated that I had a Black woman adviser and I had an incredible team of Black women psychologists around me. It was the one period of time that I got to be surrounded by Black women who wanted the same things and believed in the same thing as me.
While I was there, I was researching Black-oriented reality television and the stereotypes of Black women. I wanted to see if young Black women endorsed more stereotypes if they watched more reality TV. While I was doing that research, I learned that I was looking at 3 different stereotypes. One is Sapphire, which is also known as the angry Black woman who is super angry and degrading. The other stereotype is Jezebel, where there is an overly sexualized image of Black women. Then, there is the strong Black woman schema.
When I gathered my research, what I noticed was that young Black women were rejecting the more negative stereotypes of being sexually promiscuous and angry. By and large, they were endorsing the strong Black woman. I was speaking with my advisor on why we are seeing this pattern, why are we rejecting two stereotypes but not the other stereotype. It became clear in the conversations on a more anecdotal and personal perspective that the strong black woman is a real-life thing.
I didn’t think about it because it came more naturally to me. When I was doing research, I realized I am a strong black woman. The women who raised me in my life, my mom and my two older sisters, they're strong too. If you had asked me what it means to be a Black woman, strong would have been one of the first things that come to mind. It was such a badge of honor. It was what you do. But in the conversations that I was having with my advisor, I started to realize that there is a cost to strength. It got me through a lot of things, and it got many of the Black women I know through a lot of things. They’re resilient, they overcame a lot of hardship, but I also noticed the emotional struggles they experienced and the emotional struggles that I experienced even in grad school. I was struggling emotionally.
It wasn’t the intellectual issue, it was the emotional impact that I didn’t realize the doctoral program would have on me. I was dealing with emotional struggles and stress. I was noticing that because I was taught to be strong I was disallowing myself my humanity and to express my feelings.
Say that when something bad happens to you when you go through a stressful dramatic event, you don’t just shrug your shoulders and keep going, but I learned to do that. When something bad happens to me, I may cry it out a bit and then I just moved on like it never happened. The truth is that your body keeps the score. Whatever happens to you, your body makes note of that. That is when I started to identify that being strong isn’t all that it's cracked up to be. From that point on, I knew that I needed to work in this particular area and help Black women with this particular thing.
When I finished grad school, moved back to California, and was working, I was talking with a colleague of mine, who is a friend, and we decided we wanted to do more research in this area. As we did more research, we applied to a couple of small grants. We got some small grants to do community workshops and that’s how it started going. The research and community work are very connected because we wanted to be researched based. Also, it was personal to us. We lived the experience of being strong.
A cost to strength. It’s like balance, a give and take. With all of your accolades and triumphs, what are some of your proud achievements so far?
I think for me it’s been honestly moving across the country so many different times and creating a life for myself. I was truly a very shy child. I always had dreams of moving to LA, New York City, and traveling the world. I wasn't sure how I would do that.
The ability to move away from my family, who have been my base, and live in New York City which was a dream for me, and to live in Houston which was never a dream for me. At first, I didn't like the move but ended up living there for 4 years. It was an amazing place, and I made some really good friends. Then moving to Los Angeles, that has been a dream for me as well.
I’ve been away from my family my whole adulthood. Being able to be away from them but connected to them, and be able to connect with many friends, who I consider family along the way, are some of the biggest honors of my life. I’ve had to move, and start over again, and again, and again. I’ve done it so successfully that I created strong relationships.
When I speak about being very shy as a child, the truth is that I probably had social anxiety. The more I moved, the more I was able to come out of my shell quicker. Being on Taraji’s show was a culmination of all the work that I had done from my childhood to my adulthood to manage my shyness.
Those are my biggest accomplishments. When I was a child, I imagined being able to do these things but not really sure how. I was terrified. Being able to see myself grow and be on Taraji’s show even though I was so scared to speak. I was able to do it, conquer my fears, and have this amazing group of family and friends that I feel blessed and honor to have.
What advice do you have for our Toastee audience?
One of the things that I think is important nowadays is that I think there is a big push for this grind culture where you always have to be working and pushing the envelope.
I’m an ambitious woman working hard and I respect that. I also think it's important to be still sometimes, to know when it is your time to be still, and to honor when your mind and your body are telling you to be still. That might mean being still for a particular season of your life or it might mean taking time to rest and sleep regularly.
I’m coming to the point in my life, after the grind of the past year and pandemic, where I’m slowing myself down. It's really scary because I’m like everything is going to pass me by. But, I also know that these still moments of my life have been important for me and that if my body is telling me that I need to be still, then I have to make time for my wellness. Because if you don’t make time for wellness, you will be forced to make time for illness.
One of the things that I regularly encourage people is to take care of themselves. Resting and getting good sleep. I’m not one of those people that will grind, grind, grind and sleep when I die. I discourage that. Sleep is super important and I encourage you to get your sleep.
Another thing is that I encourage joy. I feel that having fun, having a good time, laughing, being around family and friends, doing things that you love, and having hobbies just for the sake of having hobbies are important. Enjoying life becomes super important for your relationships, your general life satisfaction, and your wellness. Every single day I encourage creating intentional pieces of joy. It could be as simple as listening to a song and dancing for a few minutes. Whatever it is, find moments of joy and relish them, embrace them, and take part in them.
For the pandemic, I encourage people to be intentional about connecting with people socially. Even if you can’t visit and be with them, be creative in finding ways to connect.
The last thing is if you need professional help, go and get it. Seek out therapy if you feel it will be helpful for you. If you’re unsure, consult with a therapist of some kind. Take that step to take care of yourself. Know that if you take care of yourself, your emotional state of being and your mental health are the bedrock to life's success. The people that you see that are really, really successful, when they’re not mentally well you see them unravel even in all of their success.
To learn more about Dr. Akilah and find her podcast and show appearances visit her website www.drakilah.com. Keep up to date with her on social @dr.akilah on Instagram, @drakilahreynolds on Facebook, and @drakilah on Twitter.
Dr. Akilah is also a psychologist at The Black Girl Doctor. Make sure to check them out and book a session with Dr. Akilah at www.theblackgirldoctor.com. You can follow them @theblackgirldoctor on Instagram and Facebook.
Lastly, don’t forget to check out Dr. Akilah’s organization SBW Wellness Collaborative at sbwwellness.org. Keep up to date with them @sbw.selfcare on Instagram.