Clinical psychologist and hairstylist, Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka shares her take on hair and uses it as an entryway to mental health. The mission of Dr. Mbilishaka’s movement is to connect within the mental health community to support their hair care experiences. 
Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka

Hype Hair: What was your relationship with your hair when you were younger ?

Dr. Mbilishaka: I think I’ve always had a healthy relationship with my hair, because my mother made that a priority. So growing up, I’m the youngest of four. Every Sunday night, my mom would wash my hair and style it for the week. And so this was our special time together. And my mom was very, very gentle. She would say, “How many braids do you want” and I’m like, two, and so she creates something with two braids. The next week, I’d say seven and she’d create a hairstyle with seven braids. So she really used this as a time for us to have conversation, connect, talk about the week, what we hope to happen. I think that actually got whisked into my hair, because I always pretty much wanted to create time and space to do my hair. Of course, in my “teenagehood” I was really pressed to try different styles but I think that the times that I do my hair or go to the salon space that I thought of is like a fun opportunity, and not as painful. I’m also very aware that I have certain hair privileges. How people perceive my hair texture is often complimented or reinforced. I think that that kind of inspired me to be mindful about how other people talk about their hair and create more positive experiences.

Hype Hair: You mentioned hair privilege, can you break that term down for people who may not understand

Dr. Mbilishaka: I think that there is this implied caste system that exists in the United States and maybe even throughout the world, where people who have a looser curl pattern, tend to maybe even get certain jobs. They have access to certain educational experiences. I think there’s even research suggesting that people who have longer hair tend to be empowered to explore. Even political figures of our time think that there’s these associations that there’s goodness or smartness associated with certain hairstyles and textures. I think that I’ve been impacted by that. But I was more on the privilege side.

Hype Hair: Were there any unhealthy hair habits you had to unlearn as a child ?

Dr. Mbilishaka: I had some low points, lots of ears were burned. Foreheads were burned, I think you know, because I was a 80’s baby but grew up in the 90s. And when you think about the 90’s like Aaliyah was like my hair icon, you know I had to have the little swoop and so I know that my edges suffered during the 90’s specifically to achieve that style because I was cool and I think everybody wants to look cool. And so I think sometimes I did experience my own pain and probably use products that were really toxic. Now that I think about what was in the things that we used everyday. They were probably really unhealthy for our hair and our scalp. Probably our whole body system because I do believe that anything you put on your hair and your skin should have products in it that are edible, right in terms of how our body processes chemicals just really try to have less chemicals as possible. 

Hype Hair: How do you maintain your hair to be so moisturizing and healthy ?

Dr. Mbilishaka: Although I like My Black is Beautiful hair care line, my favorite hair product is water. Water is my favorite hair product right in terms of not only applying it to my hair, but to drinking it. That is the basis of growing healthy hair to be well hydrated, having enough nutrients, exercising, getting enough sleep. We don’t even recognize sometimes the connection between sleeping and healthy hair. But this is a time where our body you know regenerates itself, lower stress hormones that actually impacts hair growth. So actually, like the direct things that manage stress, also help to grow healthy hair.

Hype Hair: Your knowledge is very research based. 

Dr. Mbilishaka: Yeah, I do identify myself as a research scientist. It’s part of my mission professionally to prepare studies. I know that Cosmetology exists or Trichology, but to really think about the meaning of hair and why we do certain things. That’s really my interest.

Hype Hair: I saw a recent trailer about your first time getting braided. How was that experience?

Dr. Mbilishaka: Growing up like I shared with you, my mom was very much a minimalist when it came to hair. She didn’t want to put a whole bunch of things into my hair and it was often done at home. So I had never gotten my hair professionally braided or styled into my adulthood. So for some reason, I was very cautious about getting hair added. I felt like you hear new stories about people having rashes or losing their edges from their hair and so I didn’t want to be a victim of bad haircare or styling. But I recognize that there are people who are braiders who focus on hair health. I actually found someone, Tamara Albertini, who works with ancestral strands and her whole agenda is to be a healthy braider in terms of she does something to the hair before she applies it. She soaks it in different things. She picks hair that has the least chemicals and uses very specific hair products when she’s braiding in terms of making sure the hair and the scalp is healthy. So, she actually studied traditional African braiding style throughout history. I want her to braid my hair. I wanted to really trust the person doing it who would have the best interest in mind. I guess I am always looking for someone like my mom, who would be very cautious and careful and not pull too hard and take their time and create like a beautiful end product. It sounds like you found someone who aligns with your teaching habits, who was like a stylist, so it kind of just worked out perfectly.

Hype Hair: Can you tell us about your hair teachings, PsychoHairapy 

Dr. Mbilishaka: Oftentimes, professional, basic counseling techniques are restricted to therapists. But I think everyone needs to know those skills. But especially people who work with hair, because you’ll spend hours and hours and hours together. And so recognizing that’s an important time to have some conversation. So basically, the PsychoHairapy training because someone can get certified in it. The PsychoHairapy training includes teaching people about the history of hair and how hair relates to someone’s health. I also teach about the variety of mental health disorders that someone would see in the salon or barber shop setting. I also train about how to do active listening. So oftentimes, healthcare professionals want to be helpful, but maybe they’re, they’re not listening to the full story, and want to give advice really badly. But what makes therapy, the way that psychologists do, very helpful is that we’re such good listeners. And so there’s actually techniques and strategies to listen and let the person know that you’re listening, such as summarizing or probing in a certain way that is not judgmental. Another piece of the training is how to find a therapist for your client. When someone goes into other topics, they actually need a professional mental health worker, or a person who has a mental health professional. So actually create strategies to find therapists in the community and to recognize that you can work in collaboration. I have this concept in there about how to adapt the therapists to use a lot of barbershops, because that is like a point person that can help you. Things like that, and just recognizing the role and responsibility that healthcare professionals can have in addressing the mental health needs of their clients. 

Hype Hair: It is common that people don’t find a fitting person as a therapist and it discourages them from going back to their therapy session. 

Dr. Mbilishaka: I’ve been finding studies that say, for the black people who will actually go to therapy, only 50% will go back after that first appointment. And so I recognize that there’s oftentimes a mismatch between what people’s expectations are of therapy and what actually happens and culture plays a big role. So I recognize that we need to take advantage of the trusting relationship between a healthcare professional and their client to make that connection to mental health care.

Hype Hair: I know, when I’m picking my braider or anyone doing my hair, trust is a very big factor. It doesn’t sit right with me if someone was to touch my hair or is my scalp for a long time and there’s no trust there.

Dr. Mbilishaka: Exactly, and that’s the key for mental health to have someone to share with you. Trust to recognize that sometimes it’s not alone in a therapy office, but it can be in a salon or a barber shop space, where the community can really care for one another. 

Hype Hair: Where can readers find more information about PsychoHairapy ? 

Dr. Mbilishaka: Information about PsychoHairapy  can be found on my website, PsychoHairapy.org or Instagram @PsychoHairapy. I love collaboration and connection. Because this really is a global hair and mental health movement.