"Take Care of Yourself so You Can Continue the Fight": A Convo with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford
Though the podcast has only started a little more than a year ago, it seems like every Black woman getting in touch with her mental wellbeing is listening to Therapy for Black Girls. Founding the website under the same name in 2014, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford facilitates a Black woman therapist directory which locates over 700 Black therapists across the country who work with Black women and girls. While she advises her listeners that the podcast is intended to supplement, rather than substitute a relationship with a licensed medical professional, the brilliant podcast features a vast array of Black women’s issues and guided solutions from college life, depression, to relationships.
Black women are truly incredible. We are at the frontlines of social struggles, we are the insightful backbones of our communities, and we are the cultural preservers and innovators of our generation. While Black women should be lauded for our resilience, essentializing perceptions of Black women threaten to confine us to identities as strong, impenetrable fortresses of our communities, thereby limiting our abilities to reveal our tenderness, vulnerability, and trauma. The stigma of mental illness in conjunction with the nationwide paucity of culturally sensitive therapists continues to produce a normalized culture in which Black women are not attending to their illnesses nor their traumas.
Dr. Joy’s work intends to propel Black women past this culture, away from these constricting mentalities, and into the rewarding practice of radical self-care. Perusing her website and following her sound advice via her podcast is enough to remind us of the fact that healing is much like watering a garden: if we tend to our roots daily we will surely find verdant land.
CRWN sat down with Dr. Joy to discuss Black rage, media representations of self-care, and what a shifting healthcare landscape could mean for Black women.
Can you talk about your journey as a licensed psychologist?
I have been licensed since 2009 and the majority of my work experience has been in college counseling centers... I’ve been on a lot of different college campuses and I think that has really fueled the work that I do because at every institution I always ran some kind of group for Black women students. So it has always been an important part of the work to provide mental health services for the Black women students on campus.
What were some of the issues you noticed in these institutions that allowed this project to come into fruition?
Especially on the predominantly white campuses there were lots of feelings of isolation and loneliness, related to there not being a lot of students that looked like them. There were definitely some racist micro aggressions happening on campuses, feeling like they were the only one in class, and having to represent the entire Black race when they raised their hand. And also your typical college-age woman issues related to dating, friendships, roommate issues and figuring out who you are separate from your families.
I loved listening in on your podcast “Angry Black Women.” While there is divine power in expressing anger and indignation, can you discuss productive mechanisms for expressing our rage?
Yeah, and I do think increasingly it feels like everyday there is something to be angry and rageful about. But we also do have to be mindful of the society we exist in. And it does feel like there’s this tension between making enough noise and making enough chaos to make people understand and take us seriously, but also not wanting to be shot or killed. It feels like there’s a fine line between how rageful you can get and maybe channeling some of that rage into running for offices, and creating community programs, you know some of the things that give us an in so that we could see some of the changes we’d like to see happen.
I think a lot of people are excited about the Congresswoman who was recently elected from the Bronx, it feels like that could be a way too. And I feel like there’s this tension of taking down these institutions versus infiltrating them, but I feel like we need to do both. It doesn’t seem like any of the traditional institutions are going anywhere very fast so some of us need to be infiltrating while creating new things we would like to see.
I’m curious about your own practices of self-care while counseling Black women.
I feel like I’m always tweaking my routine. For me I’ve been trying to be intentional about how much time I’m spending online because I really find that impacts my mood a great deal. Especially when you never know what new story is going to break. It has been very difficult for me because so much of my work is online. I have a small practice but more of my work is actually related to managing the directory, or running my Facebook group, or interacting with the group of therapists that I facilitate. So much of my work is online that I find it difficult to find a break sometimes. So I’m really trying to be intentional about not going down the rabbit hole of reading news and keeping up with too much, to manage my mood with everything that’s happening in the world.
With this burgeoning conversation surrounding self-care that has been widely circulated in the media, do you find that the term has been diluted with overuse?
Yeah I think it has. And I don’t think people always know exactly what it is. Yeah, taking care of yourself is taking time to get a mani-pedi. It’s great to spoil yourself, and indulge yourself, and make yourself feel good but that’s not all that it is, and that’s not really feeding your soul. When I think about self-care I’m thinking okay, turn off instagram and go play uno with the kids, or go take a walk up a mountain, or swing at the park.
You also want to pay attention to anything that’s depleting your energy. It goes much deeper than just manis and pedis. It’s also: how are you creating good boundaries for yourself? How are you saying no when you need to? Are you eating the right kinds of things? Are you getting enough exercise? That kind of stuff really helps to fuel yourself. I also feel that industries have gotten in on how to commercialize self-care, and they’re selling products in the name of “self-care.” That’s not always what it is, self-care doesn’t have to cost any money.
What are some seemingly harmless everyday habits that cause us to neglect our mental health?
Well I think we have to careful with things like napping. Sometimes that’s how we deal with stress, it’s like an avoidance technique. You could be saying it in the name of needing rest, but it could actually be that you’re avoiding something that you don’t want to deal with. Something has made you so anxious that you don’t want to deal with so you lay down and take a nap. I think we also have to very careful with “retail therapy,” especially now since it’s so easy to scroll through Amazon and put whatever on your card and it’s at your house in two days, it’s even easier than getting in your car and going to the mall. So again, thinking about is that really something that you need to do, or are you shopping as a way to make yourself feel full because of some other loss or hole that you feel like is in your life? That is what you really need to be paying attention to.
I also think we need to be paying attention to our relationship with food and alcohol. A lot of times people do that in celebration, but sometimes we can overindulge in those things and again, fill ourselves up with that to avoid dealing with another issue. So it really goes back to everything in moderation and paying attention to why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.
We know that there’s a current disparity in access to healthcare faced by Black women, and the administration has only served to widen these existing accessibility gaps. Can you share some thoughts on what that means for Black women’s mental health?
I do think it is something that we need to pay attention to. At some point there was an act called Mental Health Parity which meant that mental health services should be seen as equal to all your other physical health needs and that providers were supposed to be paid on par with other medical professionals. Well, that didn’t happen, and now that those things are changing lots of professionals have decided not to take insurance anymore, simply because for a lot of them it wasn’t affordable anymore. Of course this impacts accessibility because now there are fewer people who are in network for people who need to or want to use their insurance benefits to see a therapist. There already aren’t enough therapists to go around, especially if you want to see another Black woman therapist or another therapist of color, and now if people are not accepting insurance that limits the list even more. So it definitely impacts the ability for Black women to get mental health services because they may feel like, if I cant find a black woman to accept my insurance then maybe I’ll decide I don’t actually want to go.
I also think it’s interesting how this administration has pushed this narrative of the alleged accessibility of health facilities like emergency care.
Well in theory, but of course there’s a triage system in the ER so if you’re not deemed of the most urgency you could be there for hours, and that could also result in a large medical bill. So then are you causing further stress and strain on somebody to now have them be in debt for these medical concerns? So it really is a cascade effect.
With the current administration and the perpetual violence committed to Black folks prevalent on the news and social media, what advice can you give socially conscious Black girls when the world is on fire?
Take care of yourself so you can continue to do the fight. I don’t think we need to look at anyone lesser than because they’re not doing the same things that we’re doing, I think everyone has to figure out what their lane is and exceed and succeed in that lane. You may not be someone who is organizing the marches, but are you somebody who could get the community organized to do something or could you run some kind of volunteer program, or could you do some kind of children’s literacy? What is your thing? Everyone’s thing is going to be different so we do have to be careful in thinking we only resist in one type of way. There’s so much mess going on, there’s an area for you to clean up that doesn’t make you any lesser than or any less “woke,” just because your activism doesn’t look like mine. I think that’s important, and I also want to reiterate the importance of making sure that you’re taking care of yourself and pouring into yourself in the ways that you need to so that you can continue the fight.
Sometimes that means stepping away even if that’s for an extended amount of time, there will always be more fight for you to get back in when you’re ready. You know, doing what you need to do to preserve yourself. Making sure you’re still having moments of joy. I think a lot of times we feel like because so much awful things are going on in the world we don’t want to celebrate when good things happen to us, or you may feel guilty for laughing. You may think, how can I be joyous right now when so much is happening, but you deserve that. And you need that to keep going. So just be mindful of those things.