Licensed psychologist, natural hairstylist, and hair historian Afiya Mbilishaka, Ph.D. has created a unique niche for herself in the mental health space—one that explores the connection between therapy and hair care. As the founder of Ma’at Psychological Services, a private practice serving Washington, D.C. and New York, her therapeutic approach consisting of culturally-affirming practices perfectly complements her global movement, PsychoHairapy.
Mbilishaka’s love for hair stems from early childhood. Her beginnings as the “family stylist” eventually led to her opening pop-up mini-salons in her college dorm, all while working towards her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. A conversation with her Aunt Brenda sparked the idea to fit hair care and mental health support into her future career plans. She then went on to obtain a master’s and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Howard University, where she established the PsychoHairapy Research Lab.
After finishing her studies and spending her career beginnings as an assistant professor of psychology + program coordinator at the University of the District of Columbia, Mbilishaka eventually decided to pursue her beauty career and role as a therapist full-time.
PsychoHairapy’s mission is to leverage hair care as an entry point to accessible mental health support. The initiative offers a unique approach to therapy with a community focus. Salon visits have sort of served as a ritualistic practice for black women, and the salon is known to be a sacred safe space where you can freely lay your feelings and emotions on the cutting room floor—except there are salon chairs instead of a therapist’s couch.
A black woman’s hair is also her crowning glory and is linked to her confidence and self-esteem, further contributing to the state of her mental health. The close connection between hair and mental health is the basis of PsychoHairapy’s advocacy.
PsychoHairapy has a skills-based training course for hairstylists, which teaches them to incorporate mental health support into their services. This program aims to equip hair care professionals to successfully make clients look and feel their best. Earlier this year, Maui Moisture launched a partnership with PsychoHairapy and donated $100,000 to expand stylists’ access to the training program.
We spoke with Mbilishaka about PsychoHairapy, the connection between hair and mental health, and so much more in this edited interview.
How did you develop a passion for mental health and hair care, and what exactly sparked the idea for PsychoHairapy?
I always loved doing hair. I was my family’s hairstylist. I had a lawn chair at family cookouts and [did] different relatives’ hair outside, and when I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, I would have these sort of mini pop-up salons in my dorm room. It was not a business because I never charged anyone to do their hair. I just enjoyed the creative process of hair care. I would hear “all the tea” that was going on at school, because people would share their stories with me and what was going on in their lives, so it was a great way to connect.
I remember talking on the phone one day to my Aunt Brenda—she’s now an ancestor—and telling her I didn’t know whether I should pursue a career in psychology or haircare, and she [asked], “Well why can’t you do both?” I don’t think she was telling me to do both at the same exact time, but that’s the way I interpreted it. I do credit my aunt and my college dorm room conversation with birthing PsychoHairapy, [which promotes] using hair as an entry point into mental health care and just merging these concepts together.
Why do you think that people are so comfortable with showcasing vulnerability around their hairstylists and sharing the challenges that they face in life? What is it about hairstylists that makes them so easy to talk to?
There’s a [Guyanese] proverb that goes, “When your sister is your hairdresser, you need no mirror.” I think that it really speaks to [the fact that] if you trust someone to do your hair, you can trust them with the other things that are going on in your life, because there’s a level of vulnerability that you have to have with someone touching your head. I would argue that people trust hairstylists more than therapists, just in terms of the regularity in which they see [their stylists] and the advice that they get.
In what ways can it backfire—sharing one’s personal life details with a stylist? And what boundaries do you suggest that clients establish with their stylists to avoid drama?
I encourage clients to request [whether they] would like a hair care session that’s silent or conversational, just like with an Uber driver when you’re not necessarily in the mood to have a conversation and spill it all out…to have some sort of informal consent in terms of, “This is what I need and this is what I don’t want right now,” and for that to be respected. If the hair care professional can’t respect the boundary, consider going elsewhere.
What are some ways to can distinguish whether or not a stylist is a safe space?
A major part is, “Are they doing active listening?” Sometimes, I think stylists might actually have an idea of what hairstyle the client should have without consulting them [and then] they’re like, “This is not what I asked for.” It’s the same thing when it comes to words. Are they really listening? One way [to know] is, can the stylist sort of repeat back what you’re saying or summarize? Are they good at saying, “Did I get that right,” or asking clarifying questions?
What role does hair, in particular, play in a woman’s confidence and self-esteem?
I think that hair is a litmus test for our emotional state. Our hair is a complex language system that articulates how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about our culture…how we feel about our role in society. In a lot of traditional African societies, our hair could say how old we are, what religion we’re a part of, our marital status…all these different factors [that relate to] our identities. I do see hair, because it’s the most easily manipulated part of our bodies, as a reflection of our emotions and our moods, and even temperaments.
I also think that there are things like hair depression or hair stress—that can be deeply distressing experiences related to our hair—that we internalize and can have negative impacts on our wellness. Also, when we’re taking good care of ourselves, whether we’re sleeping at least eight hours a night, drinking at least 64 ounces of water a day, eating 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables or exercising, I think that shows up in our hair as well and those are the same techniques that we need to manage our emotional worlds.
What are the benefits of having a hairstylist who’s trained in mental health?
That’s the whole key to it. We need sisterhood support in wellness. I haven’t read the book [Sisterhood Heals] yet…it’s actually the PsychoHairapy book of the month, [but we] sometimes identify one person in the community that can do health-related work—like psychologists or physicians. [However], I do think that it becomes the community’s responsibility to have awareness, knowledge, and skills when it comes to mental health first-aid.
Just like everyone should know CPR, I think everybody should understand what a panic attack is, and should understand the signs and symptoms of depression because we can get resources and quality care. Even if the stylist is the first step to long-term therapy or psychopharmacology, I think that it’s important because of the intimacy of the storytelling process, and being able to offer some skills around mindfulness and even narrative therapy.
What training resources does PsychoHairapy offer to stylists?
The PsychoHairapy certification process, as it stands right now, is a 12-hour process. The first module of it is going into thousands of years of hair history. I think that it’s really important to have cultural historical context in order to do wellness work. Going through and identifying history, and really educating folks about how hair and tradition has been used as a healing modality, is a major resource in terms of books and historical figures and ideologies that inform the practice of hair care.
The second module includes identifying the signs and symptoms of mental illness in communities of color…so recognizing that irritability and having an attitude can be a sign or symptom of depression in black women…so [that they have] the resources of not only knowing the traditional diagnoses but to have some occupationally-specific and culturally-specific ways of understanding various psychological disorders with case studies and articles.
The final module is micro-counseling skills [and represents the acronym] HAIR: “H” is harm to self or others, “A” is active listening, so going through exercises and actually doing these feedback circles and fishbowls around the skillset of practicing how well someone actually listens. “I” is imparting information. I give tons of book recommendations and [recommendations on] videos and documentaries during this part, so the people can study up and lean into the information. “R” is refer to resources respectfully. I actually designed [and] curated referral lists for each hairstylist who completes the certification process, using directories like Psychology Today and Therapy for Black Girls to identify local professionals to have an “adopt a therapist” model so that they know therapists within a 10-mile radius or more depending on where the stylist is. That information is printed out and readily available in the salon for them to give to their clients as needed.
I do have ongoing continuing education outside of the certification process that includes an introduction to black psychology class, [and] an emotional first-aid class that goes through each emotion and how to process and deal with it—whether it’s coping with grief, rejection, managing failure…sort of smaller, didactic trainings that people could go through to get more self-knowledge so that it’s helpful in working with their clients.
For stylists who are interested in this program, is there an application process?
There isn’t. It is more so an investment in terms of being able to commit the 12 hours to do [it], because it can be hard to find 12 hours to learn. Then [there’s] the financial investment to pay for the certification, which in its current state is $600. It’s more affordable when it’s [completed] in groups. If you can get your salon to sign up, then it’s a fraction of the cost for each individual, so [we encourage] people to do it with a friend. Everyone’s welcome, even non-stylists who are interested in understanding the hair and mental health relationship.
What about the stylists who prefer to just stay in their lane and focus on hair care? What are some ways that they can collaborate with licensed therapists?
One of the stylists in San Diego got certified but decided to have a support group in her salon space. After going through the process, she actually hired a social worker and has bi-monthly support groups where she co-facilitates these conversations with a social worker in her community. It’s after salon hours [and they] sit in a circle and do that work so that she doesn’t feel the weight to say the right thing or make the right recommendation, and to actually have a partnership with a mental health professional and to utilize her space in that way.