The State of Our Mental Health: Dr. Joy, Therapy for Black Girls

Dr. Joy

During Mental Health Awareness Month we’re diving into “The State of Our Mental Health” by profiling mental health leaders and discussing how they’re coping with the coronavirus outbreak. In this video, Talkspace contributor Ashley Laderer speaks with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, licensed psychologist, speaker, and the host of the wildly popular mental health podcast, Therapy for Black Girls. Check back each week in May as we continue the conversation and share your own videos @talkspace using #TheStateofMyMentalHealth.

Talkspace:

Welcome Dr. Joy, as you know, it’s Mental Health Awareness Month this May. And at Talkspace we’re doing the State of our Mental Health. For people who don’t know, Dr. Joy is the founder of Therapy for Black Girls, which is a podcast and an incredible online community. We’ll get into it. But I wanted to have a discussion with you, Dr. Joy, about how you personally are handling this pandemic and how you are taking care of yourself. Do you want to give a little bit of background information for people who aren’t familiar?

Dr. Joy:

Yes, absolutely. So Therapy for Black Girls started in 2014 as a blog, where I was talking about different topics related to Black women, mental health, and wellness. I added both the therapist directory and the podcast in 2017, as a way to continue having those conversations in a way that people could really rally around. 

The podcast has been something that lots of people have really enjoyed participating in. It feels like we have this ongoing conversation. It’s been a great way for our community to continue some of these conversations around mental health and how we can prioritize our mental health as Black women.

Talkspace:

I love it. And I was just watching a video of you earlier where you said that the therapy directory started out as a Google doc with names on it. And I thought, that’s so funny because I checked out the directory and there’s so many people on there now. It’s really cool to see how quickly something can grow, when you’re passionate about it, which clearly you are. 

So let’s talk a little bit about how, statistically, people of color are less likely to seek psychological help. I know there’s some issues with stigma and sorts of stuff. So I was wondering if you could give an overview.

Dr. Joy:

Yeah, absolutely. Actually, like you mentioned, stigma is probably a primary reason why lots of people of color struggle with seeking help for mental health concerns. Historically, it’s not something that has been done in our community. Lots of us were raised to feel like what goes on in this house, stays in this house. 

So the idea of talking with a stranger about some really personal information is very, very foreign. I also think it’s really important to think about the ways that mental health services, in some ways, have been used to further oppress people of color. So you can think about things like child custody things, how therapists have been used to take children away from parents. If we go way back, slaves escaping from their slave masters was, at one point, considered a mental health disorder.

And so I think when you think about the relationship between psychology, mental health, and people of color — and especially the black community — there’s not always been a symbiotic relationship. So I think that there are lots of reasons for people to mistrust some of the systems related to mental health. But I think as we talk more and more about how it can be helpful to speak with a therapist, and the benefits that you can receive, I am excited to see more people taking advantage of those opportunities.

Talkspace:

And I think that brings us to why your therapy directory is such a great resource. I would think that people of color would definitely 1000% feel more comfortable talking to somebody who gets it. So what you’re doing with that online tool is awesome. I’ve heard a lot about this from friends in marginalized groups — whether they are people of color or in the LGBTQ community — they always talk about how important it is to have a therapist who can, not only sympathize with you, but empathize with you. It is amazing that you’re curating such an amazing directory.

Dr. Joy:

It absolutely is! I always like to tell people, just because I’m a Black woman, and a Black woman may want to come and see me, doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to be the best fit for her as a therapist. But for a lot of people, that is really important. If they’ve had situations in the past with non-black therapists where they felt like they weren’t listened to, or they felt like the therapist was kind of glazing over some of their concerns, that can be incredibly important. 

But it’s also important to remember that there are not enough Black women therapists to go around. Even if not every Black woman wanted a black woman therapist, there are not enough. It’s also important to be open to the process and to the idea that you can still have a great therapeutic relationship with someone who may not be another black woman therapist. But if that feels like a central thing for you —- if you feel like, “Oh, absolutely, it has to be another Black woman” — then by all means, start your search there and try to connect with a Black woman therapist.

Talkspace:

I think it’s really cool that you also have virtual therapists on there too.

Dr. Joy:

Especially right now.

Talkspace:

Right now that’s crucial. I wanted to talk about the Yellow Couch Collective. You’re in a yellow chair right now. Is that the yellow couch? So it sounds like a really cool online community. I personally feel, as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, the most beneficial thing for me has been having a community of people who I can talk to who really understand. It’s one thing to have friends who are like, “Oh, I’m so sorry you feel this way.” And another having a community who is like, “I fully understand what you mean. I just had a panic attack like 10 minutes ago.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, so did I.” It’s a kind of camaraderie. So can you talk about the Yellow Couch Collective is doing that?

Dr. Joy:

Yeah, so the Yellow Couch Collective. I do actually have a yellow couch in my actual therapy office. This is just my yellow chair for my home office. But in my actual therapy office, there is a yellow couch. I wanted to develop a smaller portion of the Therapy for Black Girls community, where it felt like what it would be like for a group of us to be in my office, all talking about supporting one another. But only like three or four people can fit in my physical office. We can have as many people as possible in the Yellow Couch Collective, which is the online version of that. So the idea for the Yellow Couch Collective is to take some of the topics that we discussed on the podcast and go even deeper. 

A lot of what we’ve been talking about recently has been friendships. There’s been a lot of energy around that because people have been watching Insecure on HBO and we’re seeing the breakdown of a friendship. That has caused lots of people to think about their own friendships. And how maybe friendships haven’t worked out. Accepting our responsibility for how those things don’t work out. So it’s an opportunity to take the information from the podcast and bring it to life, to get feedback in real time from other people. We try to do some social things there. 

Next week we’re having a Netflix watch party for Michelle Obama’s Becoming special that just aired. So we try to make it a community thing. The hope was to have some in-person activities this year but that, of course, doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen. The idea is that it really allows people to connect with other listeners to the podcast in a way that feels meaningful and supportive.

Talkspace:

I love that it’s a supplement to the podcasts. I was going through some of the topics, reading the episode descriptions. It seems like an awesome thing. Once in a while, I’ll listen to a podcast and I always want to talk to people about it, especially when it’s mental health related, and I’m going through those things. So I think that is so cool that you’re doing that. Especially right now. 

I know you said you were hoping for there to be in-person things obviously, but it’s so important that you’re continuing to hold the virtual events because people like are going to lose their minds if they don’t continue to socialize during this time. So more than just talking to somebody, but, like you said, a Netflix watch party. 

How do you take what you would want to do in the normal world and translate it to a virtual world? And do you want to talk a little bit about how you’re doing the virtual holding spaces?

Dr. Joy:

So the first one will actually be tonight. Given that we are also in the midst of a pandemic, it felt really important to create yet another space for people who can come together and really support one another. So every Thursday in May, for Mental Health Awareness Months, we’re doing a virtual holding space called “Getting Through Together.” When you come together in a group, you recognize that you’re not alone with your thoughts. You’re not alone with your experiences and your feelings. It can really be helpful sometimes to hear somebody else say the thing out loud that you were struggling with. This is the first time we’re doing anything like this and I’m really excited to be able to open up this opportunity for our community. It could be something that we continue to do based on how it goes

Talkspace:

And it’s free, right?

Dr. Joy:

Right.

Talkspace:

So now talking about you personally, I feel like a lot of people, whether or not you have a preexisting mental health condition, are taking a hit to their mental health during this time. I was wondering, how has the pandemic affected your mental health personally? And what are you doing differently to cope with that?

Dr. Joy:

I agree with you. Just collectively there is a heightened level of anxiety and stress that all of us are feeling. I definitely have been impacted by that. It definitely has made me anxious thinking about, how do I protect myself? How do I protect my family? I have a little one who has asthma. And so when originally this all started, I anticipated that that may be a risk factor. So we pulled him from school really early, even before our school was closed. I definitely have had heightened levels of anxiety related to everything going on. It has been helpful for me, but I was already seeing my therapist every Tuesday. And I have continued to do that throughout because it really helps to give me a place to kind of manage any distressing thoughts that I’m having.

I’m also still seeing clients, so it can be helpful to have a holding space for what I’m struggling with, as I also hold space for my clients. I’ve also, trust me, been pretty intentional about staying connected to my support system. We’re texting and stuff, but we’ve added FaceTime calls. I’m staying engaged with my family much more, since people have a little more flexibility in their schedules and can kind of talk a little bit more. So that has been really helpful for me. It’s also been super helpful for me. 

I have dialed down to watching news very minimally. Because, when you are anxious and you’re looking for information, it feels like this is a good idea, right? “I’m going to read this article, and this article, and this article,” and you feel like, okay, you’re getting what you need, but it actually can overwhelm you. And so I have been very intentional about cutting down my news consumption so that I’m not overwhelming myself with too much information.

Talkspace:

I think that’s great. I’ve been telling that to my parents. They nonstop have the news on. And I’m like, “You guys, this is not helping your mental health. We already know the facts!” So, anger aside about my household news consumption, I love those tips. And I also think it’s funny you brought it up, something I’ve always been fascinated in: therapists having their own therapist. I think that’s so cool. 

I don’t even know what my question is, but can you just elaborate on what it’s like to be a therapist in therapy? When you already know the workings of therapy?

Dr. Joy:

That is a great question. I think it’s interesting. Lots of us are trained similarly. Sometimes when you’re a therapist, and I’ve even heard therapists talk about this, they have difficulty even starting therapy because they’re trying to see where the therapist is going to go. Right? “Oh, what question is she gonna ask?” That kinda thing. 

I’ve had therapy throughout my life. Even in grad school, it was highly encouraged for us, as grad students, to know what it felt like to be on the other side of the couch. I started there, even before I got into a place of trying to second guess what the therapist was gonna do. So I feel like the transition for me has been pretty easy.

I find, at least personally, that I’m able to give over to the therapeutic process. So I’m not trying to hide information because I’m afraid of what she’s gonna think or anything like that. For me therapy has been a really safe space, and a really comfortable space for me to talk about everything that’s been going on — not only in the world — but also in my business and related to my family. So it has felt really good for me to be able to have that space to talk about some things that I’m not talking about with my friends. 

I do think sometimes there can be a little bit of a game, sometimes when you’re a therapist seeking therapy. But I think for most people, eventually you forget about that and you just go to get what you need.

Talkspace:

Right. Having a safe space and having an outlet is so important. I’ve been in therapy forever, since I was 11, so it’s also very second nature to me. But a lot of people, regardless of age, race, gender are still afraid of therapy. Even though we as a society are talking more and more about mental health, or making it more normalized. Celebrities are talking about it, influencers are talking about it. And yet still people are embarrassed or too proud to reach out for help. 

What advice do you have for those people who need that safe space, and need the help, but are kind of nervous or apprehensive about taking the first step?

Dr. Joy:

One of the largest misconceptions people have about therapy is that it’s only a place to go in crisis, right? People still think that there are issues that can be too small to go to therapy. But if you go to therapy before there’s a crisis, you can do some great work that could prevent a crisis from even happening. So don’t feel like there’s anything that’s too small to talk with a therapist about. 

Look at it as an opportunity for you to really do some great personal work on yourself. There may not be anything functionally going wrong, so to speak, in your life. But I think therapy can be a great place where you just learn more about yourself. Like you can develop really, really good insights about why you do the things that you do and how you relate to others.

I think you get that kind of thing in therapy in a way that you can’t get anywhere else. I also like to remind people that the first therapist that you see, may not actually be the best therapist for you. Unlike working with your primary care doctor — who may not have the greatest bedside manner, but you only see them once every four months so you can deal with it — you do want a therapist who you feel like you have a good connection with. 

So if you feel like their bedside manner isn’t that great, or you feel like, “I’m just not really connecting with them.” Even if you have shared some pretty personal information — and I know people hate the idea of having to start over and share everything again — but it is really important that you have a therapist that you feel is really listening to you, you feel like they really get what you’re talking about, and you feel connected to them. Additionally, you want to make sure that they have specialization in the thing that you’re going to therapy for. 

But that may not always happen with your first therapist. So I do encourage people to not lose faith, or lose hope, because you didn’t connect with the first therapist. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or with the therapist. It just may not be a great fit.

Talkspace:

Right. I heard somebody describe it once as being like dating. You go on your first date and maybe it’s amazing and you hit it off. Or, maybe, you realize, “Oh my God, this person is so not suited for what I need right now.” And then you go on to the next. 

So what do you recommend as a timeframe, or how many chances do you give a therapist? If you feel like it’s not the right fit, or if it’s not working out, how soon is too soon to to cut it off?

Dr. Joy:

That will be a really, really individual choice. Just like with a first date, there are some people where you meet them and you’re like, “absolutely not. This is not at all going to be a fit.” I’d encourage you to pay attention to your intuition. That’s something we don’t do enough, right? We feel like we need to have all this evidence, we need to give all of these chances. And the truth is, if you feel like in that first session, the person is not going to be a fit. It’s okay to just not make another appointment to go back. So you could know as soon as session one. 

But if you are still new to the process, and you’re not quite sure how it’s going to work with anybody, then I would encourage you to maybe give it 3-5 sessions, just to see if you feel comfortable in the space. Do you feel like you’re connecting with the person? Do you think that the person actually understands what’s bringing you in? I would say within three to five sessions you should know if it’s going to be a good fit. 

The other thing that can happen is that you can work with the therapist for a long time, right? You can get great results, but at some point feel like, “okay, I’m not making any further progress.” And then it may be time to either take a break from therapy or you may need another therapist. So, you know, breaking up with the therapist, so to speak, doesn’t only happen in the beginning. It can also happen after you’ve done some great work with them and then decide, “okay, I need something else now.”

Talkspace:

Yeah! I love that we’re talking about this. I did not plan at all to talk about this, but this is actually something that I’ve been thinking about. I just broke up with, well, I was testing out another virtual therapist. I was testing the waters, and I had maybe four sessions and then yesterday we had to break up. But it is what it is. I know that’s how it works. I think it’s great that we touched on this, so people know that you don’t have to be stuck with a therapist you aren’t meshing with and it’s nothing personal to them usually.

Dr. Joy:

It’s just part of the work and it’s a part of our training, right? So I think that is something that stops clients from speaking up as well. Cause they’re worried they’re going to hurt the therapist’s feelings? Are they going to be upset? You know, that kind of thing. And truthfully, our training has prepared us for this. We want you to be well, even if it is not with us, we just may not be the best person for you. We may even have suggestions for somebody who we think might be a better fit for you. Even though it’s a difficult conversation, it’s not an impossible conversation. So if you’re feeling like, “okay, I just don’t feel like this is a good fit,” then go ahead and tell your therapist how you’re feeling. I promise they are not going to fall apart.

Talkspace:

That’s good advice. I think that will resonate with a lot of people. Are there any other organizations out there right now that you think are doing really great work during this pandemic to support people, whether it’s supporting their mental health or supporting them in another sense? Maybe specifically organizations that are helping marginalized people? Are there any organizations that you’re really looking up to right now?

Dr. Joy:

I don’t know about definite organizations. I mean, I think that there are just lots of individuals who are always doing great work. Dr. Oni Blackstock and Dr. Uché Blackstock are a pair of sisters in New York, who are both physicians and doing both incredible work in terms of racial health disparities. So we already know that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the black community. They have been incredible voices for how physicians can make sure that they are paying attention to their own bias in healthcare. They’re doing great work to try to bring those numbers down. I love the work that they are doing. 

I’ve also really been encouraged by artists and musicians who have been working to entertain us throughout this. You may be familiar with D-Nice who has been spinning every night basically since this started. To give people a space to come in to. There are the versus battles where you see two songwriters, or two producers, come together to play their music as a celebration of what’s been happening. I’ve really been encouraged by the ways that people are sharing their gifts with others in this moment to make a very difficult situation, a little bit more bearable.

Talkspace:

It’s not the same, everybody knows that a live stream is not the same as being in at a concert and in that energy. But, in the circumstances, I think it’s amazing that so many artists are doing this — and out of the goodness of their hearts — to entertain their fans. And mental health and music are very intertwined. A lot of people turn to music as an answer to their mental health struggles. So I think it’s amazing that there are people who are still doing their music, still entertaining their fans, because it’s keeping them well. And it’s giving them something to look forward to.

Dr. Joy:

Right, right. Yeah. For those couple of hours when you’re participating, it kind of feels like nothing else is going on, right? It feels like this thing we’re all into. So I think it has been a very helpful reprieve for a difficult situation.

Talkspace:

Definitely. So obviously this, this Mental Health Awareness Month is very different than ones in the past because usually there’s a lot of in-person things. I’m sure you would be doing some speaking in person. 

I’m wondering what do you think is a positive that’s coming out of this Mental Health Awareness Month that is unexpected? Because obviously a few months ago we had no idea that May was going to be like this.

Dr. Joy:

I think one of the positives is that there is more attention on how the mental health impact of COVID-19 is really going to be an epicenter of what needs to be paid attention to. So right now, and even coming out of sheltering in place, mental health will continue to be a very important part of this conversation. Right now people are paying attention to mental health and the different efforts that organizations are making, in a way that they might not have if we were not also struggling with COVID-19.

Talkspace:

That’s definitely true. And I think people also, who have never had experience with anxiety — lucky, lucky people — are experiencing it for the first time. And, obviously that sucks, but at the same time it’s raising awareness and it’s helping them to understand what people like me and other anxiety disorder suffers deal with. It’s a really weird, scary, interesting time, a million words could describe this time. I think, what you said, that it really is bringing awareness to mental health and beyond just a physical pandemic. I saw a statistic yesterday, saying that one of the suicide prevention hotlines has had an astronomical increase year over year. Between this month and this month last year.

Dr. Joy:

I hadn’t seen that, But I’m not surprised. Given what we know about suicide risk. We know that when there are more stressors — in terms of finances, losses of jobs, recent losses in terms of deaths in the family — that does increase the risk for suicide. So I am not necessarily surprised that we are seeing that increase. I am encouraged though that people are reaching out for the resources. That I think is a good thing, that people are becoming more aware of the resources and hopefully getting connected to the help they need.

Talkspace:

Definitely. That’s something that I was thinking too. I was like, “well, this really, really sucks. So many people are in crisis, but they are reaching out for help, which is good.” 

So last question for you. Actually it’s two fold. What do you think is your number one coping skill or self care tip that you love, that you would recommend to people who are struggling right now?

Dr. Joy:

I think number one is limiting your news consumption. So I think you will notice a marked difference in mood and sleep disturbances if you pay attention to how you’re consuming your news.

Talkspace:

Definitely, I agree!

Dr. Joy:

The other thing that has been really helpful for me is a newer thing that I’ve added. I recently got, what is the name of the game? Animal Crossing! So that has been a really fun distraction for me, because it’s not that easy a game to figure out what you’re doing, but it’s also kind of relaxing to kind of hear the waves on the Island. So that has been a really fun distraction. I know lots of other people have gotten really excited about that game too. So that has been a more fun thing to add to my self-care.

Talkspace:

I love that though. I think it helps people understand that self-care doesn’t always necessarily have to be meditation, or breathing exercises. Those are great, but you can tailor your self-care to your own personal needs. And if animal crossing helps — don’t let it take over your life — but if animal crossing or whatever video game is bringing you joy, then just go with it!

Dr. Joy:

Yes. I’m glad you say that, Ashley, because I do think when things are really difficult, like they are right now, it can be really easy for people to forget about cultivating joy in their lives. And that is absolutely something that still needs to happen. So if it is Animal Crossing, or a Netflix binge, or whatever, you still want to create those moments for yourself.

Talkspace:

Absolutely. We need, we need laughter and joy. Dr. Joy! You have a great therapist name, Dr. Joy. Well, thank you so much. It has been so fun to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know that your schedule is probably crazy. I’m so excited for everybody to listen to this and you are such an inspiring person. I hope that people are going to watch this and feel really inspired to get help or are inspired to one day start their own thing like you did.

Dr. Joy:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, Ashley.

Talkspace:

Yeah, you’re welcome. And stay safe. Have fun with Animal Crossing. Hopefully we’ll talk again soon.

Dr. Joy:

Sounds great!


Dr. Joy Harden Bradford is a licensed psychologist, speaker, and the host of the wildly popular mental health podcast, Therapy for Black Girls. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Xavier University of Louisiana, her Master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling from Arkansas State, and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from The University of Georgia. Her work focuses on making mental health topics more relevant and accessible for Black women and she specializes in creating spaces for Black women to have fuller and healthier relationships with themselves and others. She has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Bustle, Huffington Post, Black Enterprise, Women’s Health, BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, and Essence. Dr. Joy lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband and two sons.

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