The Black Paradise Project: Countering the Mental Health Impact of Racism with Black Joy

As Philadelphia comes to grips with the mental health impacts of racism, how can we create a productive path forward?

One unique initiative, the Porchlight Program of Mural Arts Philadelphia, put out a call for a psychologist and visual artist to develop a project to address mental health issues within the Black community. In response, counseling psychologist Kimberly Marie Ashby, PhD, and visual artist Yannick Lowery created the Black Paradise Project. The project aims to reduce the mental health burden of exposure to racism by providing opportunities for Black people to share their experiences and engage in joy.

“Anti-Blackness is a serious problem,” says Dr. Ashby, whose research focuses on racial trauma and its effects on mental health. “A lot of the literature demonstrates that engagement in joyful activities — specifically activities that allow you to feel connected to others and put you in a state of flow and mindfulness — allow people to create a life worth living, despite the fact that they are negatively impacted by racism.”

Providing Relief During a Time of Turmoil

With input from Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities Services, the Black Paradise Project organizes a variety of events, from dance and yoga to nature hikes and reflective writing workshops. People of all ages and communities throughout Philadelphia attend these activities. “Our events have the goal to help people find peace and relief, especially during a time of racial turmoil,” artist Lowery says.

Lowery is incorporating images from the organization’s events during the past year into a mural that will be installed in West Philadelphia. The mural’s composition will demonstrate the methods that members of the Black community have used to “find paradise.”

The adult Black community is 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, according to Thomas A. Vance, PhD, of Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry. The increased incidence of psychological difficulties, Vance says, is related to the lack of access to culturally responsive mental health care and prejudice inherent in the daily environment, as well as issues related to economic insecurity and the associated experiences, such as violence and criminal injustice.

Racial trauma is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s never-ending,” Dr. Ashby notes. In a culture that often demands a show of strength and resilience, “There’s never any room for softness or vulnerability,” she says. “True freedom is being able to be fully human.”

The Black Mental Health Anthology Project

To reduce the stigma of seeking care and to help people cope, the Black Paradise Project launched the Finding Paradise: A Black Mental Health Anthology project this spring. From 30 submissions of visual art, essays, and poetry, Lowery and Ashby chose 19 to appear in a digital and printed anthology known as Finding Paradise: A Black Mental Health Anthology.

.The work is powerful. In “I’ll Show You the Way,” award-winning artist Afi Ese, of Houston, Texas, holder of a master of science degree in forensic psychology, depicts a dark bird covering a man’s head like a headdress. The image invites viewers to decide if the figure is wearing the animal or perhaps directing him.

In the 2018 poem, “You have that Depression thing, right?” Ailisha Sher of Philadelphia writes, “When sadness walks in/Grey is the only color I can wear without fear of a witch-hunt, and/Trees become helpless victims to intense bear hugs because at least trees can’t run away from me.”

“I was blown away” by the submissions, Lowery says. “I didn’t expect people to be so vulnerable. I think people can benefit from these and realize that they’re not alone.”

“I’ll Show You the Way,” Afi Ese
Source: Finding Paradise: A Black Mental Health Anthology. © The Black Paradise Project. blackparadiseproject.com/anthology

For more information about mental health self-care strategies and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind or mindphltogether.com.

For Black Women Who Say They’re Okay When They’re Not

How are you feeling? 

As leaders in our communities, workplaces, families, and homes, Black women are often carrying a physical and emotional load for themselves and those around them.

Earlier this year we got a sobering reminder of the invisible baggage we carry when we learned about the death of Cheslie Kryst, former Miss USA and entertainment news correspondent at Extra

From the outside, the 30-year-old appeared to have it all. With a pageant crown, multiple degrees, talent, and charisma, she exuded what some would describe as “Black Girl Magic.” But in a social media post confirming her suicide, Kryst’s mother, April Simpkins, revealed Cheslie was dealing with high functioning depression.  

What is high functioning depression? The clinical term is dysthymia. According to Psychology Today, three causes of high functioning depression are trauma, intergenerational depression, and unresolved frustration, something many Black women know about.

In 2007 the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development published the report “Cultural dysthymia: An unrecognized disorder among African Americans?” The report states, “After more than 250 years of enslavement, prejudice, and discrimination, dysthymia is reflected in chronic low-grade sadness, anger, hostility, aggression, self-hatred, hopelessness, and self-destructive behaviors.”

As we’re starting to emerge from the pandemic and the stress of the past two years, it’s OK to not be OK. But if you’re not, it’s important to get help.

Here are six ways to mind your mental health:

  1. Make a to-do list and a to-don’t list. Too often we try to take on everything and consequently suffer from burnout. Try this Trash, Transfer, Trim, Treasure exercise we use at The Ladipo Group to help you recognize responsibilities and activities you should stop doing, delegate, spend less time on, or continue doing because it brings you joy.
  2. Ask for help. There’s no shame in admitting your emotions might be too much to process on your own. Use resources like TherapyForBlackGirls.com to find a therapist in your area.
  3. Rest, rest, rest. Whether it’s getting the amount of sleep you need each night or taking small rest breaks throughout the day, allow time for your body and mind to stop moving, shut down, and rest.
  4. Move your body. Dance, exercise or do anything that gets your body moving daily. Movement boosts your mood by releasing endorphins which make us feel good.
  5. Curate your social media. Oftentimes we scroll through our phones and feel lousy. Review the people you follow and content you absorb, and delete those that don’t add joy.
  6. Intentionally cultivate and connect with your tribe. Our tribes of sister-friends get us through the darkest times and celebrate the joyful times as well. Don’t wait until you’re in the depths of despair to reach out. Sometimes a text or funny meme is all that’s needed.

If you struggle to take time out to care for your mental health, remember that you’ll be better able to care for others when you’re filled and refreshed from first caring for you!

Tonya Ladipo is the Founder and CEO of The Ladipo Group, the region’s only therapy, counseling, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consulting practice specializing in serving Black and African-American communities.

The Search for Culturally Competent Care

Fans of the award-winning TV series ‘This is Us’ may remember the episode where Randall decides to switch therapists. The character—a successful commodities trader turned Philadelphia City Councilman—is African American, was raised by a white family, and struggles with anxiety and PTSD. He admits that he isn’t comfortable sharing many of his feelings with his current therapist. His new doctor is “cool, smart, funny, Black, young father… we got a lot in common,” Randall explains.

Does your therapist ‘get’ you? The answer to this question is a key factor in mental health recovery. 

Finding a provider you trust, who you connect with and who has experience working with people like you, isn’t always easy. Yet it is especially important for members of minority groups—many of whom suffer generational trauma from systemic racism, yet don’t receive the treatment they need. 

The numbers are telling. Forty-five percent of U.S. adults with mental illness receive help, but just 23 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) adults, 33 percent of Black adults, 34 percent of Hispanic/Latinx adults, and very few Native people with mental illness get treatment. 

This is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month—a time to focus on the unique struggles around mental illness that minority communities in the United States face, along with the solutions. Finding culturally competent providers is one of them. 

What is cultural competence in mental health? 

Cultural competence is understanding that a person’s values, experiences, and personal beliefs are shaped by their ethnic and community identities and the influences that come with it. These factors can also explain why a patient avoids treatment and how they perceive and express symptoms, cope, adhere to treatment, and attach stigma to mental illness.

Exploring a patient’s cultural identity may help providers tailor mental health treatment. On the flip side, cultural incompetence likely contributes to underdiagnosis and/or misdiagnosis in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, writes Mental Health America. “Language differences between patient and provider, stigma of mental illness among BIPOC, and cultural presentation of symptoms are some of the many barriers to care that explain these errors in the diagnostic process.”

Assessing a provider’s level of cultural sensitivity 

It starts with asking the right questions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness advises that you ask:

  • Have you treated other people with my cultural background?
  • Have you received training in culturally competent care for members of my community?
  • How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?
  • Do you have training in trauma-informed care?

Here are a few places to start your search for a culturally-competent mental health provider:

Psychology Today – Search for a therapist by zip code, ethnicity served, type of therapy and more.

Inclusive Therapists – Search by insurance, specialty, therapist identity, language, cultural knowledge, therapeutic approach, and location.

Open Path – A nonprofit serving clients who cannot afford current market rates for therapy through a network of affordable mental health professionals. Search by specialty, language, therapist ethnicity, age specialty, treatment orientation, and location.

You might also try:

Asian Mental Health Collective

The Association of Black Psychologists Therapist Resource Directory

Therapy for Latinx

Centers for Medicaid and Medicare American Indian/Native Behavioral Health Service Locator

Take a Minute to Breathe

Ariana Grande’s popular song “breathin’” is an anthem to anxiety that speaks to a simple solution with a multitude of benefits. “Don’t know what else to try, but you tell me every time, just keep breathin’ and breathin’” chants the pop superstar.

Unfortunately, most of us weren’t taught the simple techniques and range of positive outcomes that come with—well—simply breathing.

It happens to all of us. Feelings like anxiety, stress, and fear cause our breathing to be shallow, irregular, or rapid. It’s entirely normal. Our body’s automatic response is to protect itself. The trick is to focus not on what’s happening around us, but to what is happening within us. We are breathing. It’s our most basic instinct.

Practicing steady, deep breathing delivers more oxygen to the body and brain, reduces your heart rate and decreases the release of cortisol—better known as the stress hormone. Deep breathing also releases endorphins. This in turn increases a sense of calm and can combat pain.

Other known benefits of deep breathing include:

  • Lower blood pressure –Relaxation opens the blood vessels and improves circulation
  • More energy—From increased oxygen to the circulatory system
  • Less headache pain – Due to reduced tension locked in the shoulders and neck (you’ll rest better, too!)

Practice Makes Perfect

Getting back to steadier breaths is within reach. All it takes is a few minutes of practice. The American Psychiatry Association (APA) created one solution called “Just Breathe.” For three to four minutes a day:

  • Think about your body. (Are you breathing rapidly, forgetting to take a breath altogether, or taking shallow gasps?)
  • Begin breathing slowly and deeply for a count of four
  • Hold that breath in for a count of four
  • Slowly let the breath out for a count of six

Why does this work? Our brains can tell when we have varying emotions. Taking a few minutes to exercise a large organ in our body – our lungs – refocuses precious energy and retrains the way our body responds to our feelings.

Self-Care is Good Care

Almost everyone can relate to Grande’s refrain, “Time goes by, and I can’t control my mind.”

When this does happen to you, remember to breathe. Better yet, be proactive and take a small step in self-care by scheduling 4 minutes of ‘me time’ on your iPhone or calendar. Devote that time to breathing exercises.

Then, the next time someone asks you “How are you,” it will ring true when you reply, “I am good!”