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Black Mental Health with Dr. Rheeda Walker

Dr. Rheeda Walker wants to erase the word “should” from our lexicon—for good.

The award-winning professor of psychology at the University of Houston and American Psychological Association fellow has published 60 scientific papers on African American mental health, suicide risk and emotional resilience. But, once upon a time, she, like every Black and African American child in the U.S., contended with the challenges of growing up in a racist culture that taught her to doubt her worth and to understand that she would have to work twice as hard to achieve what she wanted. She soon realized that ingrained racism could have a lasting impact on mental health.

Intent on bringing insight to this crisis, in May 2020, Dr. Walker published her seminal book, The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. In it, and in appearances on outlets like Good Morning America and NPR, she offers targeted tools and strategies for practicing emotional wellness—like letting go of “shoulds.”

Here, she sheds light on the particular mental health challenges plaguing the Black and African American community:

Live The Process: Was mental health discussed in your household growing up?

Dr. Rheeda Walker: Like a lot of African American families, mental health was probably acknowledged much more implicitly than explicitly. A common refrain from my family, and in a lot of Black families, was that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to, but I was also cognizant that I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far as a white person. That level of responsibility can be simultaneously motivating and emotionally taxing. Over time, it can create considerable worry and anxiety if not sufficiently balanced with emotional support.   

LTP: What are the particular nuances of Black and African American mental health versus the general population?

RW: Accepting racism as a part of life is psychologically distressing and perhaps even more so because it isn't discussed in that way. Unfortunately, acceptance is the norm for Black and African American families because racial discrimination is interwoven in education, healthcare, housing, politics and entertainment—it’s everywhere. This persistent racism also undermines a person's humanity. When Black/African American people internalize that our lives don't matter or that we are “less than” other people, the consequence is low self-esteem at best, but also it can engender hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Those who cannot relate to the burden of racism presume it to be “just another stressor,” but it is so much more than that. Racism is a thief that steals creativity, success and “worthiness” in innumerable and unimaginable ways. 

LTP: Your book is called, The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. Why “unapologetic”?

RW: The book is unapologetic in that it speaks to the unique realities that Black people in the U.S. and around the world experience. Too often, Black adults and youth are seen as “minorities” and lumped in with Hispanic/Latinx persons and also persons of Asian ancestry, but there is tremendous nuance that is missing in this approach. The history of chattel slavery in the world has had detrimental and long-lasting effects for emotional health and how Black people attempt to survive in a racist society. The book is also unapologetic because I challenge some ingrained survival strategies, including over-reliance on religion. I hear too many stories wherein someone asks for help for emotional distress and they are advised to “pray about it.” Some people need to pray for a mental health professional, but they might not get that advice.   

LTP: What tools have helped you personally remain balanced and calm in this challenging time?

RW: I, personally, have a considerable amount of self-awareness as a Black woman and as a clinical psychologist that I access to stay balanced. It doesn't always work because I can get overwhelmed, but I am very intentional about how I use my energy, how I spontaneously implement deep breathing, who I include in my inner circle and how I access my favorite music and writing and other strategies, all to keep life in perspective.  

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

RW: Happiness is being able to find joy in the little things. This weekend, I purchased a beautiful Boston fern from my favorite grocery store. I smiled from the time I put her in the car to the time she landed on our front porch. I didn't even let myself think too long about how the last fern likely died because I didn’t water it enough. I could have! Instead, I stayed in the moment of how beautiful and healthy my new fern was. (She’s on my IG page, by the way!)

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?

RW: Living the process is being fully in the moment and not being distracted by the “shoulds” and what “they said.” We live in a society wherein we compare everything about ourselves to others, even when we have no idea what other people have gone through. We compare how our hair should look and how thin we should be or how far along we should be in our careers. It’s exhausting.

In my book, I talk about removing the word “should” from our vocabularies. Any graduate student who has spent time with me knows that I always flinch when I hear the word (even if no one sees it, I’m flinching). "Should" means that we're supposed to be doing or engaging in something other than what we're doing or what we did. Instead, assume that wherever we are is where we are supposed to be. If we want to be better or act differently next time, we can do that without "shoulding" on ourselves.


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