Get Your Head Right: An Unapologetic Conversation About Black Mental Health with Dr. Rheeda Walker

The University of Houston psychologist has dedicated her career to studying depression and suicide in the Black community, and now she’s written a new book about that helps us confront those issues head-on

For centuries now, Black America has endured pain — both physical and mental. From police brutality to living in racially-determined environments that are polluted with toxins from heavy industry to not having our pain taken seriously by medical professionals, being Black in America is a significant health hazard. 

Yet, of all ethnic groups, Black Americans have historically been the least likely to commit suicide. That we can endure seemingly anything is a strange place to find pride in oneself and in one’s people. In fact, thinking this way is pretty unhealthy, too. Because buried in that prideful boast is the unacknowledged implication that we will have to continue to endure — and continue to endure pain. 

This is the overarching theme Rheeda Walker, the director of the Culture, Risk and Resilience Lab at the University of Houston (where she studies Black resilience in particular), examines in her new book The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. The first half serves as a diagnostic. It helps readers perform a personal inventory and check in with themselves. The second half functions as a toolkit that offers them ways to look after themselves with a mental health-care praxis that’s rooted in Blackness and shared resilience. That last part is key: Shared. Blackness is always an “us.” 

I recently spoke to Walker about the book as well as why Black people should stop referring to themselves as minorities, what psychological fortitude has in common with sunscreen and why Wakanda Energy could be the way to a better future.

You make a point often in your book that in Black America, there’s always been this constant message that we survive together. Would you say that your research set out to answer the question of how we formed a Black identity that’s so resilient to the many stressors we must endure daily due to being Black?
I didn’t see myself writing this book. This wasn’t my intention. But I think the universe kind of demanded it, because my research — and it’s not just mine, but mine and others — has shown that when there’s this positive sense of who you are as a Black person, it has all sorts of wonderful outcomes. It’s related to academic achievement, psychological well-being and relationships. One cannot have a negative sense of who they are and function adaptively in our society, regardless of who they are. 

But this is true certainly for African Americans. I hear students in the classroom say, “I don’t know why we’re talking about Africa; I’m just American, none of that other stuff has to do with me.” And so, there’s this disconnection from who we are. So, yes, I think we do need to be intentional about being Black people. And going a step further by saying, Black people of African descent, because we have a culture. We didn’t just show up as slaves. I’ve conditioned my son that if anyone around you says slave, you say “enslaved people,” because these were people who were doctors and who were brilliant individuals. “Slaves” is a throwaway. These were enslaved people. We have to recognize who we are, and then, connect with other people who have that shared identity.

You also point out how the identity comes down to the language we use and so forth. For instance, you recommend Black people stop referring to ourselves as minorities.
Minority is just such a generic term. What does it even mean? I’ll tell you — it means less than. So why be a minority when you can be Black? It’s okay to be Black. It’s okay to be Hispanic, to be Chinese, to be Vietnamese. It’s okay to have an identity. But when we identify as a minority, we have to ask, what does that even mean? It’s all about being intentional. Even our psychological well-being, we have to be intentional about. Because there are so many things that are trying to pull us away from being happy and healthy.

In the book, you write, “To recognize the dire state of Black mental health may require that you reject what you have come to understand about what it means to be healthy.” In other words, our resilience, which, historically, has come from our resistance to being killed — essentially, we’ve endured everything rather than let anyone, or anything, kill us — can be unhealthy. It can also turn against us. But isn’t it difficult to convince Black people that something that we’ve used to endure life in America for centuries may actually be a poison or be self-destructive?
We need to shift our language. That’s going to be key, which is why I introduced the idea of “Psychological Fortitude.” We have to completely reframe how we’ve been thinking about things. So, as an example, we’re conditioned that if you ask for help, it suggests that you’re weak. We have to think about asking for help as a strength, because then you’re able to overcome whatever the weakness may be to get help. So, throughout the book, I’m on a mission to reframe how we’re thinking about things because I don’t want to take that strength away. The strengths we have are important. But we need to take our strengths up another level, basically. 

“Psychological Fortitude” is a play on the PF scale for sunscreens and a measure of how much protection one feels they have, psychologically, from exposure to the harsh bullshit of systemic racism and anti-Blackness. It’s like a measure of a person’s mental/emotional willpower. It’s also a way of performing an emotional inventory. 

I love this idea, but I have to admit, I kinda laughed a little to myself when I read it, because I never use sunscreen. I was like, “PF, what is that again?” So does this sunscreen metaphor connect with Black readers — do you find people use it and think it’s helpful?
It does seem to be resonating. Thinking about PF is also about recognizing the threats to PF. You have to be able to maintain your well-being, your ability to think and manage your emotions — things of that nature — but for people who are marginalized individuals, in this case, African Americans, there’s going to be extra threats to all those things. So if you try to take care of your health by going for a walk, you could be shot by police. You try to navigate your work and be the best possible employee, but people say you’re just here because you’re Black. You have to maintain a bit of a balancing act — you’ve got to do all these things for your psychological fortitude, while also recognizing and managing the many threats to your psychological fortitude, or PF.

You also point out how racism is considered a mental disorder. What then are we supposed to do about the fact that we’re dealing with people who are experiencing a mental health challenge as well? We seem to have to be doubly resilient — both to look out for ourselves and to protect against what we’re dealing with on a day-to-day level.
Some segments of the African-American community, maybe too often, are still surprised by situations that occur. As an example, the Mr. Ahmaud Arbery news, it was like, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this is still going on.” Well, of course, it’s still going on. Nothing has changed. Maybe when we can put that pathology in its appropriate context of mental health, it’ll shift something in the community to come up with different answers, different responses and different solutions.

You spend a good deal of time discussing the effectiveness of imagining a better world — what you term Wakanda Energy. Dreaming where a person wants to go next is very key. How big should people dream so that they can benefit from that Wakanda Energy and do so without deluding themselves at the same time?
I don’t think there are any delusions. When we put those limits on ourselves, because that’s what we’ve done, we limit ourselves. I truly believe that, given everything that people of African descent have been through in this world, and to still be here… We’re still here. Then, when we start to dream and imagine in that way, it opens up new possibilities, it opens up a different part of our mind and different parts of our brains. 

It saddens me when I talk to folks who are lost and just going to work and doing the same thing every day, and they don’t feel their sense of purpose. A lot of that comes from having limited perspective, this vision of, well, “It’s never going to work out. Blacks are never going to be free. They’re always going to shoot us.” That does something to the spirit. We need to get beyond that as best we can.

As far as creating what you term a sense of a “meaningful Blackness,” you recommend seeing oneself as African, and a return to ideas like Pan-Africanism. Is that accurate?
That’s fair because when we have the in-fighting amongst ourselves, and I see it on university campuses, particularly with African-American and Nigerian-American students, there’s just this competition. And it’s sad. It’s unfortunate that we have these divisions. We need to be able to come together, because all across the world, people of African descent, including the colonized African continent, have to be able to pull together in order to leverage our talents. So, yes, I advocate Pan-Africanism.

If someone is trying to take the first steps of getting treatment for their mental health, what do you recommend? Where’s a good place to start?
There are free resources through [National Alliance of Mental Illness] support groups and also federally qualified health centers all over the U.S. Persons in need can look for “behavioral health” services, too. Those sites often can provide referrals if they’re at capacity. Unfortunately, those who are in crisis may have to seek care in emergency departments to stay safe.

One last question about our current moment: How is Black mental health being affected by COVID-19 and the challenges people are facing being cut off from both income and community interactions?
I see anecdotal stories and comments online, but they don’t yet give me access to what all is going on. I think people feel just this general malaise and certainly aren’t feeling good about being cooped-up at home. But I’m not sure that lay folks have the words for it. I’ve at least tried to ask the people in my circle, and I honestly haven’t been able to put my finger on what the thing is. I think people are itching to get out and get back to normal, and that’s unfortunate, because there isn’t going to be a back to normal.