Therapy for Black Girls founder Dr. Joy Harden Bradford on 'superwoman syndrome' and the importance of mental health for Black women

Dr. Joy Harden Bradford talks how she practices self-care and how Black women can set healthy boundaries. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford talks how she practices self-care and how Black women can set healthy boundaries. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

As a licensed psychologist and the founder of Therapy For Black Girls, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford has committed herself to creating a safe space in which Black women can address mental health. With July marking BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, the mental health expert and podcaster tells Yahoo Life that, given the trauma of the past year, it is important for Black people to have access to therapists that will not invalidate their lived experiences.

"[In light of] some of the experiences that we have seen on top of the pandemic — [such as] continuing concerns related to racial injustice and the trauma that can come from racism — you don't want to have to go to someone who's not going to take you at your word for how you're feeling or somebody who [has] not necessarily been personally impacted by what we've seen happen this year," she explains. "And so I think for a lot of people, they take comfort in going to a therapist who looks like them, who they know will get the experience of what they're talking about and they won't be questioned."

Here, she opens up about what practices have helped in her own life, and how fellow Black women can protect their own mental health.

What are your go-to techniques for fighting stress and anxiety?

Getting outside typically is very helpful. [Also] deep breathing. I have different playlists on Spotify that are like people playing sound bowls and those kinds of things. They tend to be really helpful as well. The other thing that can be helpful is like holding a couple of ice cubes in your hand because it can really help you to kind of detach from whatever emotions you feel like are overwhelming you.

Do you have any small self-care rituals that you use to brighten your day?

I typically like to stay up later than everybody else in my house because that feels like an opportune time for me to kind of just be alone with my thoughts, [and] typically that is when I get my journaling done. I would say that's probably the only thing I have that is a regular part of my day.

[And] with journaling, a lot of people kind of try to make it like this big process that has to be done, when really it could just be you taking a couple of notes in your notes app. It doesn't have to be [involve setting] a candle, although those can be beautiful sessions, but it doesn't have to be [like that].

What impact has taken care of your mental health had on your life and overall health?

I really think that you can’t really separate those things. Mental health is something that we all have to take care of, which I think has been a huge misconception. I think people tend to think about mental health only in a crisis, but mental health is something that we can proactively take care of as well. So paying attention to your sleep and how much physical activity you're getting in, eating the right kinds of foods — all of those things also impact our mental health. I don't think that you can really separate your mental health from how it impacts the rest of your body.

Why was it important for you to create Therapy for Black Girls?

My background is in college student mental health and on every campus that I was on, I would always run a group for the Black women on campus. Just given the stigma related to mental health, it has felt really important to me throughout my career to make sure that Black women were able to access all of the different kinds of tools and strategies we can use to take care of our mental health. [This has been] a way of decreasing some of the stigma and making it OK to talk about those things that our families have told us have not been OK to talk about, and really just creating a space for people to be able to do that.

What effects have that stigma had on mental health among Black women in particular? How can we combat it?

So I think one of the biggest ones is the superwoman syndrome — this idea that as a Black woman, that we kind of always have to have it together. You know, "Black don't crack," like all of these different things that you hear kind of just thrown around. I think it probably came from a good place. A lot of things that become a part of the culture served a purpose at one time, but now we have to look at whether those kinds of ideals are really helping us or harming us. And I think [superwoman syndrome] is actually causing more harm because we are not superwomen; we're human, just like everybody else. And so that means looking at how we can prioritize taking care of ourselves as opposed to prioritizing taking care of everybody else. And that doesn't mean that you completely cut yourself off from your community, it just means that you are supporting your own cup before you give to other people [because] you can't keep giving from an empty cup.

Aside from stigma, what obstacles can get in the way for Black women struggling with mental health?

We don't have any universal health care and that includes mental health care, so the cost of seeing a therapist can sometimes be prohibitive for a lot of people. People don't always have insurance, and even if they do through a job or something, sometimes mental health services are not included. So the cost can be really difficult for people who need services and can't access it. And lots of community clinics and other governmental support things have been closed down, so we don't even have the same level of community resources.

The other thing is that there are not enough therapists of color to go around, so for a lot of Black people, they want to see other Black therapists, [but] less than 5 percent of all psychologists are actually Black. If everybody wanted a Black therapist, there would not be enough of us to go around. So that's another thing that can be a barrier for people, is that when they're looking for help, they want to find help in the form of people who look like them and sometimes that can't happen.

Why is it important that Black women prioritize their mental and emotional health?

Us taking care of ourselves allows us to keep taking care of other people. I think in addition to self-care, we also have to look at community care. Another thing that we have seen this year is that a lot of the systems that we thought would be there to take care of us and support us in the time of a crisis were not. And so I think that means we have to do that for ourselves. We cannot do that if we are not well. The other part of it is that in order for us to continue to be successful in our careers and continue to raise families and do all of the things that we want to do, we have to be well to do those kinds of things and a lot of that starts with prevention.

What tips do you have for Black women who are struggling to make themselves a priority?

This is often really hard because we are not often socialized to do that. It starts with very small steps sometimes, so a lot of this work looks like setting boundaries for how you interact with other people and how they interact with you. [Another thing] you can do is make a list of all the things that you do in a day and then look at what actually can be checked off on that list, like who can you delegate a responsibility to [and] whose responsibilities are you adding to your plate, and then their plate is empty. If you make some lists and kind of figure out how you're spending your time, it'll give you a good indication of where some boundaries need to be set.

Another thing that you can look at is when you see a phone number pop up on your screen or a text message from somebody and your first reaction is, "Oh, what do they want?" that is a good indication that there's a boundary that needs to be set because if you don't, then you run the risk of becoming very resentful in your relationships. People often think about [boundaries as] really hard and fast and mean, like "I can't be in relationship," but boundaries are actually what would help the relationship continue. It says that I can still respect myself and kind of give myself what I need and I can do the same for you. And it's a more reciprocal kind of an experience.

What hopes do you have for mental health awareness in the Black community?

I just hope that we continue to talk about it. I hope that we continue to make space for one another to say that we're not OK because I think that there is the perception within the community, and then the perception we try to give outside of the community. And so there are often these masks that we have to wear in the workplace [and] in different areas of the community. But I think with one another, we have to really be able to create spaces where we can take those masks off and really talk about how we're struggling. And so we can only do that if we're taking care of ourselves, and then making sure that we're engaging in community care as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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