Black people are one of the least likely groups of Americans to get professional mental health services but remain some of the most resilient people in the world.
I’ve been trying to figure out how it happens my entire life. Generations of oppression, racism, poverty and community violence should have wiped our community out centuries ago. Yet here we are alive and well in 2018, just to realize that the hate and injustice toward our community is still as strong as ever. The stereotypes of the angry black man and woman, lazy black people, and the least intelligent race remain etched in the back of most people’s conscious, whether they recognize it or not. Racial tensions are so strong that a gubernatorial candidate in Florida named Ron DeSantis had the nerve to say he hopes the voters “don’t monkey it up” by voting for Andrew Gilliam, his black opponent. The problem with all this racial tension is that it has an adverse impact on the physical and mental health of those at the receiving end of racism, discrimination, bigotry, implicit biases, prejudices or whatever you want to call it.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (2018), “African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.” We are watching our people be unnecessarily brutalized by law enforcement and our complaints dismissed in the judicial system. We watch our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, be unnecessarily slaughtered in our own streets due to inner-city violence. Our children are not receiving adequate education in our pubic schools and can be terrorized when we attempt to do so, like what happened to 11-year old Faith Fennidy in Terrytown, Louisana. There are social indicators of health for black people are concerning. As a community, we are traumatized over and over again. We have mass PTSD that goes diagnosed and more often ignored. We don’t typically get treated for it either. Those symptoms include hypervigilance, sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts and/or memories, depression, distrust of others, paranoia and an increasingly negative world view. This contributes to physical health conditions like hypertension, diabetes and even cancer. We even make dealing with that look pretty easy. How are we able to do it without the help of social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists?
Well, instead of going to counseling, we get our hair done.
It doesn’t matter if we’re male or female, hair is our therapy. It doesn’t matter how old we are either. Hair is one of the strategies we’ve been able to be so resilient. Our barbers and beauticians are more than stylists. They are often confidants. We have regular appointments with the same hair barber and stylist for years to make sure we “look” presentable to the world. We spend almost $8 billion each year on hair care products and services because hair care services are therapeutic. According to researchers, “New research from Mintel reveals that sales of styling products have increased 26.8 percent from 2013 to estimated 2015, reaching $946 million, now comprising 35 percent of Black haircare sales, a significant increase from the 16 percent it represents in the total haircare market” (Mintel). The study also showed that “Nearly two in five (38 percent) Black consumers report that they are constantly looking for ways to improve their appearance, and in the quest to look their best, they are open to trying various hairstyles.”
That’s because black people have learned that the old saying, “If you look good, you feel good” is true. It’s been proven in studies so much that the American Cancer Society started a Look Good Feel Better program to help cancer patients with their recovery. We feel worthy when our hair looks nice. It boosts our self esteem and builds the confidence we need to endure the everyday challenges of being black in America. We get depressed when our hair doesn’t meet our expectations. We can’t function because we think other people perceive us as dysfunctional if our appears is not the way we want it. It cause a tremendous amount of anxiety that prevents us from performing our best. We cover it with scarves and hats to hide it from the world. Sometimes we won’t even leave our homes until our hair is satisfactory.
The very act of getting our hair done is self-care. It helps us relax. It feels wonderful to have our hair scrubbed. We enjoy having oil massaged into our scalps. Brothas love having a crisp lineup (haircut, beard and mustache). Sistahs relish in receiving royal treatment (wash and style). It is a healthy practice that brings peace and tranquility. We take pride in the images revealed from the services rendered. Taking care of our hair is a sign of health boosts our mood. In fact, hair that is not consistently maintained (washed, cut and styled regularly) could be a sign of a mental health concern is present or approaching. The person my often make comments like “I’m tired of being tired” or “it’s always something”.
HAIR is what you need to do if you find yourself in that predicament.
Build yourself a tribe where you can vent about current events and private issues that are bothering you. “The Shop” is a place where we can go to socialize. Regulars get to know each other and will become homies. We run into our friends and family. Barbers and cosmetologists provide space for the community to plan for change or celebrate milestones. (Interesting fact – I read somewhere that slaves would braid maps in each other’s hair to aid with an escape to the Underground Railroad. I don’t recall where I read that.) Neighborhood picnics, free haircuts for back-to-school, and other events are often successful because barbers and beauticians a notorious for giving back to the community. It’s amazing how people are coming together and hosting events strictly for the sake of celebrating our unique and textured hair. We create an enormous social network in hair community. The natural hair community in particular provides support to one another. We have meetups, workshops and festivals for the sake of our hair. We develop businesses together, teach one another, as well support and encourage each other.
Black people can go to the shop for advice and encouragement. Most are safe spaces to discuss taboo topics and rumors. (Some may be a bit rowdy but most are quit pleasant.) People get clarification about things going on in the community through conversations. People also discuss career and business opportunities in the hair shops. Partnerships are formed. Goods are exchanged. People share success stories and failures. Some people get help with relationships. Others vent about their frustrations with their children. Friends sometimes call each other out on their behavior in the beauty and barbershops. Values are exchanged. Community standards are communicated. Coping skills are even shared and modeled through the affirmation of feelings and disclosure of personal experiences.
Another reason the venue has therapeutic qualities is people are held accountable for doing what you say. Patrons will follow up with you at the next appointment to see if you followed their advice and how it worked. They help you unpack some of the baggage that comes with being black in the US. They will let you know, in a direct manner, if you are making wise or foolish decisions. Most of the time, they will laugh with you about your problems to help you realize you need to change your patterns of thinking and behaving. Other times, they laugh at you and your problems. It’s all in good fun. Just remember, being apart of the hair community ensures that we aren’t isolated. It gives us a place to seek resources and to promote ourselves. Hair is exactly how black people cope.
I want to give a shout out and show some love to all of the barbers and beauticians of the world. Thank you for using your talents and hard work to render a service that cleanses and heals the eyes as well as the soul. Special shout out to Cecil “CJ the Barber Artist” Jackson for keeping my entire family cut up right! You can find him at Executive Cuts in Reflections Salon & Suites on the Beltline. You won’t be disappointed.