POV: You’re sitting in your favorite hair salon with freshly washed hair and glancing at your phone. You see a notification that triggers negative feelings and lets out a huff of annoyance. Your hairstylist asks you if you’re okay, and you can’t help but launch into a long rant about what’s bothering you.
Sound familiar? Many others have been in your place (or chair). In fact, sharing your emotions with your stylist is actually quite common: One on three salon goers view their stylist as a therapist. But most hairstylists have no mental health training, let alone a degree in psychology.
Clinical psychologist and hairdresser Afiya M. MbilishakaPhD, has all of the above, however, and she’s made it her mission to support mental health through hair care (now with the help of Maui Humidity). “I had a crucial phone call with my Aunt Brenda that helped me figure out exactly what to do after graduating from college,” says Mbilishaka. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to study psychology or hairdressing,’ and my aunt said, ‘Why can’t you do both?'”
Although Mbilishaka’s aunt probably suggested that she try to balance her two passions, Mbilishaka took it at face value and began looking for ways to combine them, while tackling the huge disparities in mental health in black communities.
“To culturally engage black women, mental health providers need to recognize the importance of hair and use the existing social support of hairdressers, the natural helpers in the community,” says Mbilishaka.
That’s how she came up with the idea. PsychoHairapy. As she reflected on her own experiences and gathered data that showed black women are more likely to book a hair care appointment than a mental health appointment, she hatched a plan to equip stylists to provide support to their communities that they might not otherwise receive.
“The goal of PsychoHairapy is to bring attention to treatment modalities that fit culturally and spiritually into the lives of black women,” she says. “To reach many of this population, PsychoHairapy focuses on meeting the psychological needs of often overlooked people, by providing accessible options within the safe space of the hair salon.”
The 12-hour skills-based training course developed by Mbilishaka covers three key areas: the history of black hair, how to identify, understand and understand the signs of mental illness, and how to respond to common mental health issues for clients.
“Hairdressers who took the course became emotional realizing that their work could have such a big impact,” says Mbilishaka. “There is no mental health training in cosmetology school, so hairstylists enjoy learning the language to process the emotions that arise in their chair. Hairstylists (also) like to learn the history of our hair in particular, and like to practice techniques for reframing some of the concerns that crop up in their clients’ lives.
PsychoHairapy also teaches stylists how to refer to mental health professionals if a client reveals a concern that would require talking to a professional, Mbilishaka says.
All the good work PsychoHairapy is doing within the textured hair caught the eye of curly hair care brand Maui Moisture, whose stated mission is to instill confidence in curls to help boost the self-esteem of women in the textured hair community.
“Psychologists are trained to have quiet conversations about mental health, but Maui Moisture has developed a reputation for amplifying the most critical conversations in the textured hair community,” says Mbilishaka (who uses Maui Moisture products in her own hair).
Because obtaining a PsychoHairapy certification costs $600, which is a significant investment for many stylists, Maui Moisture has donated $100,000 to PsychoHairapy to support the training of over 100 hairdressers and barbers while helping expand the reach of the program.
“The opportunities for mental health professionals and hairstylists to collaborate in entering spaces suitable for fellowship-supported wellness are limitless,” says Mbilishaka. And thanks to the work of PsychoHairapy and Maui Moisture, the future of transforming living rooms into safe spaces for all looks bright.