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I’m a Psychologist & Hair Stylists: What I Wish Folks Knew About Mental Health

mbg Beauty Director

By Alexandra Engler

mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she’s held beauty roles at Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.

Immediately after recording today’s Clean Beauty School episode with board-certified psychologist, hair stylist, and hair historian Afiya Mbilishaka, PhD, I emailed a mutual and said: She’s a force. 

I think if you tune into today’s episode you’ll agree. In the episode, I chat with Mbilishaka about the intersection of mental health and hair, how self care can identify signs of a depressive episode, and how beauty spaces can serve as places of emotional support. 

“I use hair as an entry point into mental health conversations. It’s about educating people to have a good grasp of their own emotional world, but even thinking about how it connects their sense of self and beauty,” she says, noting the mission behind PsychoHairapy.

It’s a fascinating conversation, one filled with valuable mental health insights — especially as it relates to self care habits, self love, and using beauty as a means of connection. We also talk about the importance of expanding this conversation, so more folks have access to the tools they need to support their mental well-being.

Tune in for more information, but in the meantime here are a few of my favorite highlights. 

Beauty influencers and professionals can help encourage a better mental health conversation

Part of Mbilishaka’s work involves education, both for beauty professions—which might include anyone from hair stylists and salon owners to influencers—and therapists. This opens up the mental health conversation into areas that feel more approachable, such as hair salons, spas, and so on. 

“I think people are much more open to talking about their hair, nails, or skin concerns than they are about their mental health,” she says. “But what happens when people start talking about their hair, why they like it, or dislike it, we actually get into internal conflicts as well. [That’s why It’s important to train] hair care and beauty professionals in mental health first aid, but it’s also about encouraging therapists to enter beauty spaces,” she says. 

In practice, this could look like a lot of things, including encouraging “hair salons to be spaces to have therapeutic conversations in there—such as one-on-one work or even group work—since a lot of beauty spaces are collectives,” she says. 

And since modern life is irrevocably linked to social media—for better or worse—it’s also about encouraging better beauty conversations on social platforms. “The work also includes training social media influencers in mental health first aid. To have their posts be informed by research around mental health is important since we know that their messages are much louder than any therapists’ message could be.”   

Recently she’s partnered with Maui Moisture to help expand her work. The hair care brand provided funding to PsychoHairapy to help train professionals to be better equipped to better handle these delicate topics.

Self care habits can act as an indication for mental health concerns 

Depression is very normal. “Depression is considered the common cold of mental illness, meaning that at some point in everyone’s life, they’re going to experience some of those symptoms of depression,” Mbilishaka says. 

Given how common it is, it’s important to know the warning signs of a depressive episode. One of which is aesthetic neglect. “If it’s someone who always has their eyebrows done, wears jewelry, or has their nails done, then all of a sudden this person has their nails chipped and their hair is in a messy bun for weeks at a time, that might be a sign somethings going on,” she says. 

It’s not only lack of interest in these that might be causing it, but also just not enough energy to keep up appearances. “If someone is experiencing depression, there’s often extreme fatigue—just exhaustion,” she says. “It’s so difficult to drag yourself out of bed. People lose the motivation to even wash their face.” 

Parents should be mindful of how they talk about themselves in front of their kids 

Folk inherit a lot from their parents—hang-ups included, says Mbilishaka.  

“Parents need to do their own work first. Then they can socialize their children from this perspective of empowerment. The data shows us that if a parent embraces their natural beauty—such as hair care practices—that’s transferred to their children,” she says. “That’s compared to parents who are negative around black aesthetics, darker skin, or tightly coiled hair—those thoughts and practices are also transferred.” 

Want more mental health and hair advice? Tune in here. 

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