The past two years have presented plenty of mental health challenges for people worldwide. For Black Americans in particular, rates of anxiety and depression increased after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, according to a joint survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Exposure to racism or self-perceived experiences with racism increase the likelihood that a person will develop clinical depression, according to research, yet Black Americans are less likely to seek help — and experience less-successful outcomes when seeking counseling services — than white Americans, other research shows.
Barbara Ford Shabazz, PsyD, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, is painfully familiar with the various mental health issues that many members of the Black community face. A clinical psychologist as well as a psychology professor, she has helped her clients and students in the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia for more than 20 years with numerous challenges, including what comes with being Black in white America.
Currently focusing on her work as a personal and executive coach through her company Intentional Activities, Dr. Shabazz marries her clinical experience with positive psychology and coaching to help people live and grow with intention. Her strength-based transformational services have been especially empowering to the Black community over the past two years as they process their experiences with trauma, and her efforts to advocate for mental health access and awareness for members of the Black community have been instrumental in effecting change.
Shabazz talks about her journey as a Black woman clinical psychologist, her work with Intentional Activities, and the footprint she hopes to leave in destigmatizing mental illness and making mental health treatment more accessible to the Black community.
Everyday Health: When did you first decide that you wanted to help others?
Barbara Shabazz: I actually first made the decision when I was in the first grade. When I tell people that, they typically laugh. But I remember winning a little notepad box from selling magazines, and I would ask my friends to send me notes and put them in my notepad box on my desk. The notes would say things like, “Do you think I should ask Becky to be my girlfriend?” That was my first experience being a keeper of secrets or other people's thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. Believe it or not, it was at that point that I knew that I wanted to become a person who helped others. When I was 8, I wanted to be a lawyer; I thought I would help others in that way. But when I was in high school, I became drawn to psychology classes, which ultimately solidified my career path.
EH: What has been your focus area as a psychologist?
BS: When I first started out, I saw a wide range of ages, from children to people who were considered senior citizens. Then I began doing community mental health and saw a cross-section of different populations. So, I started my career more as a general provider and saw clients for about seven years before also beginning to teach at a college level. I taught face-to-face and online for almost 20 years, teaching multiple psychology courses. My most recent role [was] as a psychology program director.
Later, my focus began to narrow to a coaching approach when I began Intentional Activities.
EH: When did you establish Intentional Activities?
BS: I first got my business license in August 2015 but didn't truly do anything with Intentional Activities until I was laid off as an adjunct professor twice in one year. I went to a coaching seminar certification program in 2017, and from there, everything moved forward. That’s when I got really serious about Intentional Activities.
EH: It sounds like getting laid off ultimately motivated you to get more serious about starting your coaching business.
BS: It did. In 2014 and 2015, colleges and universities were experiencing declines in student enrollment, which was causing many of them to lay off their adjunct and affiliate faculty. So, I was laid off, and then I went to another university, and the same thing happened at that university. At that point, I saw my getting laid off twice back to back as a sign and thought to myself, “You know, you can bet on yourself.”
EH: What was your goal in opening Intentional Activities?
BS: I wanted to have a space where I could see people who were interested in taking action. I did not want to sit in a [therapeutic environment] with people like I had done before. I wanted to work with clients who were motivated to use their inherent strengths and the tools they were equipped with to live a more action-oriented and authentic life. To live their truth intentionally. That was my motivation for starting and creating the space of Intentional Activities.
That said, another goal was to help increase accessibility in services. I am a believer in pro bono services. … I also have specials and different pricing options that allow clients to pay in installments to help with accessibility.
EH: Thank you for making that much-needed and relevant distinction: Intentional Activities is a private coaching practice and does not have a therapeutic focus like your previous private practice. Can you speak more about who you feel can best benefit from coaching versus a therapeutic counseling setting?
BS: People ask me that question often. I think that I am in a unique position to do the work I do because of my background in clinical psychology. I also work with clients who have a therapist, and they see me simultaneously. But a coaching approach is more appropriate for people who need a little help gaining clarity about creating or framing a vision for their lives, eliminating obstacles to their success, accelerating the pace of their personal growth, and helping them achieve those results to help them live their best lives professionally and personally.
Whereas therapy is more focused on the past and digging into the root of what is going on with people and what has gotten them to the point where they are now, coaching references the past, but only to access information that we might need to create a plan to move forward. We do not stay in the space of healing from the past. So, I would suggest it for a person who wants to focus on relationships, finances, spiritual life, work-life, work-life balance, business, or physical health. But I always caution clients that I will definitely refer them if I see that they need to look at something a little deeper with a therapist or a psychiatrist.
EH: After the murder of George Floyd, there was a shift, and you began to focus your outreach more heavily on the Black community. Why is that, and what have you done to help the Black community?
BS: There is a definite shift that you can see on my Instagram account, for instance. My focus has always been on intention and doing things with purpose. So, that is the thread that continues to run through everything I do. But I was so glad to be able to support my community and build bridges with other communities for the work that needs to be done in a more equitable world.
I know that sounds aspirational, but I believe that it is possible. I run what I call intentional conversations. In this group, we discuss topics like white supremacy culture characteristics, intersectionality, racial identity development, antiracism integration, allyship, grief, compassion, family dynamics, nuance, coping, restorative justice, stereotypes, personal narratives, lived experience, self-care, and joy, just to name a few. In all our groups this year, we are spending some time with a reading and discussion of The 1619 Project. All group sessions are held virtually to help with accessibility and broaden the reach.
These groups have brought people together from all different backgrounds, worldviews, cultures, and parts of the world to discuss complicated topics with the aim of better understanding one another. The focus of these groups draws from Angela Davis’s quote, “Walls turned sideways are bridges.” It’s been a great community to build beyond those black squares on Instagram that everyone was posting in 2020, and it's still going strong.
Another thing that I started doing last year was running antiracism lifestyle integration sessions. This is a one-on-one coaching session for any non-person-of-color. Essentially the sessions are for white people who want to be a part of taking a deeper dive and making this work an integrated part of their everyday life. We meet weekly, biweekly, and monthly on Zoom.
EH: You have done quite a bit of work toward destigmatizing mental health and promoting mental health awareness in the Black community. Can you speak a little more specifically about the work you have done?
BS: I am a big proponent of doing things that I feel [driven to] do in the community. Even with my students, I always try to bridge theory and practice. One of the things we used to do that I loved when I taught at an HBCU [historically Black college or university] was going into senior citizen communities with senior wellness programs. We would talk about mental health issues, exercise, and healthy eating. These sessions were beneficial for the Black seniors, many of whom held various stigmas or lacked an overall awareness about the importance of mental wellness and health.
Also, I have found that being open to speaking with people from the Black community informally online on various social media platforms has been beneficial. I am asked questions like, what's the difference between a counselor, a therapist, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist, and what option might be best for them. Even those types of questions might seem so basic, but they mean the world to those presenting the question. Those kinds of conversations are important to destigmatizing mental illness and seeking help in the Black community.
I also want to point out that millennials are really moving the needle in destigmatizing mental illness and seeking mental help. I am so happy to see millennials having conversations about seeking therapy and recognizing that this treatment moves beyond what only a pastor or a layperson can give. So we've come a long way in destigmatizing mental health challenges, but we still have a little ways to go.
EH: Can you talk a bit about how you’ve been able to help your Black clients heal and process their experiences with racial trauma?
BS: One of the most significant tools in helping my community, people who look like me, is helping them understand that they're validated. We are not just seeing things. We are not crazy. We are not the problem. Validating us and helping us to know that we need to grieve [is important]. Also, helping equip my Black clients to learn how to use their voice and not be afraid to do so. Like I said, to give ourselves permission to grieve and not feel pressured to always stand firm.
Instilling hope and joy are also a big part of healing from racial trauma. I try to encourage my Black clients to seek hope and joy and surround themselves with healthy things and people that bring them hope and joy. I also always encourage clients to continue seeking professional help as needed.
EH: While working with your clients, have you noticed a difference in how your Black clients or clients of color might approach living by adages that we often hear, such as “choosing happiness”? Which implies that once a person chooses to be happy, the rest comes naturally, and it doesn’t necessarily take into account other factors that shape what makes or prevents people from being happy. Factors such as institutional racism.
BS: That’s a huge question. We are tired as a people. The Black community has a crippling sense of exhaustion. We are in a constant cycle of grief. I refer to a term I often used with my African American psych students, "mundane extreme environmental stress." This is a unique stress that Black folks experience just from being Black in white America.
The long-term effects of the subtle daily experiences of bias, discrimination, and racism include stress-related diseases, poor academic performance, health problems, legal involvement, marital conflicts, disability, and mental illness. We constantly have to be in a state of fight-or-flight. We don't always have the space, time, tools, or resources to get to a positive or elevated, “happiness” mental and emotional state because we are trying to simply make it day-to-day.
So, when working with Black clients who might experience unique challenges that make it harder to achieve their goals, I often recommend that they see a therapist to help them process and heal from their experiences with racism while working on their more tangible goals with me. It’s essential to recognize that a person has to have a certain level of mental and emotional clarity to work on higher-level goals such as career advancement or finding their purpose. Of course, those topics emerge in our session, and I make sure to address them with my clients when they do. It’s hard to work on those kinds of goals if they are still very much hurting from other more deeply rooted issues or if they feel like life is suffocating them and they are barely making it.
EH: Have you worked primarily in your own community in Virginia Beach, or have you seen clients from other parts of the county?
BS: Most of my clients were from my immediate community in the Hampton Roads area when I was providing therapy. But in my work with Intentional Activities, I have clients who join from all over the world, which is a benefit of offering virtual sessions. In fact, the client who lives the farthest is in Berlin.
EH: What challenges have you experienced when seeing clients both in a therapeutic setting and when seeing clients now with Intentional Activities?
BS: One of the largest challenges with the client has been helping them commit to doing the work. That’s literally on my social media profile, “Commit to do the work.” Committing to do the work is the biggest challenge, because I want change and progress for my clients, but I don't want it more than they want it for themselves. So, it brings me so much joy when they truly commit to doing the work.
EH: Why do you think it’s so difficult for people to commit to the work?
BS: It's hard. It's easier to stay in the place where we are because it's comfortable. But committing to do the work means change, and I don't know many people who love change. Committing to the work involves explicitly breaking bad habits and behaviors that are self-limiting and not conducive to our goals and our happiness. But it is sometimes difficult to break away from those habits and behaviors because they are familiar. Even if they bring us unhappiness or discomfort, they’re what we’re used to, and we know what to expect. Change, even positive change, has an unknown element that is frightening to many people. Committing to work also requires us to access and process parts of ourselves and our previous experiences that are not always pleasant or are painful to confront but are necessary for progress.
EH: What challenges have you personally encountered in your profession?
BS: Not being supported by women like me has probably been the largest challenge and the most hurtful. I already have to deal with a lack of support from people who don’t look like me, so it only adds fuel to the fire when I am not supported by women of color. But my students and my clients are always my happy place. The resistance will always be there in this position. Mainly because people are not ready [to change], as I mentioned before. So, I always remind myself to take my ego out of the equation. It's not about me. At the same time, I have to continually check myself for my biases and the stuff that I'm going through to make sure I'm processing my experiences as a Black woman who deals with the same things that many of my clients experience. So, self-care and soul care are number one.
EH: Can you talk a little about your book, Intentional Balance?
BS: I always call it my little book, and my husband always says, “Stop calling it a little book.” Intentional Balance: Creating Space to Achieve a More Graceful Juggle is a 30-minute self-help guide that I wrote in 2018 and was published in 2019. We are a culture that rewards being busy over taking time to rest. It wasn't until I was laid off twice that I began to observe many people's need for an equilibrium overhaul.
Because many of us are a part of grind culture, we never get the chance to get off the hamster wheel. So, in this 30-minute self-help guide, I talk about seven different areas to look at to practice reexamining our way of being. Specifically, I talk about being intentional, adapting, living, avoiding, nurturing, choosing, and expecting. Some activities in the book can be life-changing if people are willing to authentically engage with the book. So, again we are back to doing the work.
EH: What are your plans moving forward, and how do you hope to continue to help the Black community?
BS: My plans moving forward are to continue building a larger community and group dynamic away from social media. My goal is to create safe spaces where Black people will feel comfortable discussing and processing their experiences, desires, needs, and goals. As a people, I think we are a collective, so a collective and collaborative model works best with us. So, my goal is to continue creating safe spaces that look very much like some of the groups I currently run under Intentional Activities.
As time goes on, I also want to connect with other coaches and therapists to collaborate and have them become a part of Intentional Activities. Accessibility is also huge. I want to make my services more accessible and visible by continuing to offer free service, working with other coaches, and helping people understand the importance of investing in their mental health and wellness. Mental health is not a tangible good. So, one of my goals is to help my future clients in the Black community see the benefits of taking care of our mental health just in the same way we might view taking care of our physical health.
EH: How would you recommend that people use intentions to help guide themselves in life and to help them achieve what they want? Especially during such uncertain times.
BS: I always say, what we don't repair, we repeat. Just because we are not dealing with it consciously does not make it disappear. We are of no real value to our community, each other, and ourselves if we don’t repair ourselves. Giving up is not an option. We always hear that rest is resistance. Which it truly is. Continuing to fight for what we know to be right is intentional. It is something that we have to commit to doing on purpose every day. And this is how we can purposely honor our ancestors who have sacrificed for us, because we are someone's ancestors going forward.