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“Hood Wellness” shows how community care heals Black mental health – Reckon

Self care it’s very limited. But with community care, suddenly there are doors where there were once walls because now you’ve got that help.

—  Tamela Gordon

Tamela Gordon was exploring her early-30s when she realized how the self-care trend was quietly killing her mind.

While living in New York, she was using a couple of different methods to nurse her addiction, low self-worth, body image issues and other problems. But activities like hot yoga and hiking were bandages that barely kept her mental health together. She was enduring the traumas of sexual assault, homelessness and health concerns. It wasn’t until she voiced her struggles that a village of Black women got Gordon to a headspace where she could access resources to care for her mental health. Gordon shares her healing journey in her book “Hood Wellness: Tales of Communal Care from People Who Drowned on Dry Land,” which was published in June. Society’s version of self-care won’t save the minds of Black, brown and queer communities who face danger in multiple ways, she said.

“Ultimately, there’s no crystal strong enough to transmute the fluidity of racism, and there is no breathing technique to protect trans and nonbinary people from the hatred-fueled laws and assaults against their bodies,” Gordon wrote. “Hood Wellness is centered in an intersectional framework that demands space and support for the most marginalized. It calls for a community that not only ‘tolerates’ but amplifies, centers, and serves those most vulnerable to discrimination, oppression, and other societal hardships.”

The mental strain of discrimination and the lack of adequate mental health care for people of color are some of the issues highlighted during BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, which occurs each July. Mental illness is more persistent and causes higher burdens in Black and brown people versus white people. In 2022, Black Americans with mental illnesses were 38 percent less likely to receive mental health services due to financial, racial and other systemic issues. While experts stress the importance of having mental health professionals who look like their clients, only four percent of therapists are Black. That number shrinks to less than one percent when narrowed to Black men.

Gordon experienced some of these barriers and the importance of communal care in 2019. A collective of Black women and community activists organized fundraisers so she could move to a furnished apartment located in the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami with all expenses paid. As an Black and Cuban woman, she appreciated being close to people who looked like herself. A nonprofit called The Black Fairy Godmother, which provides multiple forms of mutual aid for marginalized families, gifted Gordon extra funds and groceries once she was settled in Miami.

The financial assistance and relocation freed up Gordon’s finances so she could pay for therapy. Back in New York, she couldn’t find a Black therapist that would charge less than $200 an hour. In Miami, she found a pool of Black therapists who would come to her home for a cost that ranged between $85 to $125 an hour. Gordon made sure to pay it forward once she got on her feet. She raised funds to turn her apartment into a free, three-day mental health retreat where those who are struggling find healing.

“Betterment leads to betterment. Right?” Gordon told Black Joy. “Self-care it’s very limited. But with community care, suddenly there are doors where there were once walls because now you’ve got that help.”

“Hood Wellness” doesn’t just focus on Gordon’s story. Essays from other Black, queer voices who overcame obstacles are woven into the book, including a woman who is living with HIV, a Black mother raising an autistic son and a 25-year-old who explores what beauty and wellness looks like after losing 80 percent of his face at 8 years old during a dog attack. Gordon’s method of storytelling transforms the book into a literary support group where readers can absorb life lessons and strength from a collection of personal essays that are split into three sections focused on one’s relationship to their bodies, identities and rights.

Gordon chatted with Black Joy Founder Starr Dunigan about the importance of a village and how communal care can fill in the gaps in the mental healthcare field:

Starr: I’m very interested in the title of the book. Do you mind going more into why you called it “Hood Wellness?”

Gordon: It has such significant meaning as a collective of Black people. Unfortunately, there’s so much disrespect that people put on our community. Terms like ‘hood,’ ‘ghetto’ are made to appear like it’s lesser than or not as good. The reality is I can’t think of anything more healing than the hood. My own story proves the magical healing property of the hood, especially the hoods we disrespect the most. For example, the Deep South. We can say what we want as New Yorkers about how cool it is to be in the North or the West. But at the end of the day, our hoods matter. When we are disrespecting or not really valuing these hoods, we’re actually taking something away from ourselves.

The term hood is almost provocative for us as a Black collective to really consider how would we treasure our hoods – not just the ones that we live in, but the ones on the other side of the country.

So there’s a lot of different ways that “Hood Wellness” shows up in this book. It is literal. it is geographical. It’s also cheeky. But it’s also very telling to what wellness looks like when you live in the south side of Chicago, San Diego, New York, Miami. Each reflection says a lot about the individual and it also says a lot about their respective community.

The term hood is almost provocative for us as a Black collective to really consider how we treasure our hoods – not just the ones that we live in, but the ones on the other side of the country.

—  Tamela Gordon

Starr: How was mental health talked about in your family while growing up and how did that influence how you took care of yourself?

Gordon: Mental health was really addressed in very individual terms. Fix it yourself. Will it yourself. If you really want it, it will be, and if it isn’t it’s because you don’t want it enough. So if I was a kid and I was sad, it was just like, “Well find reasons to not be sad.” I took that language and applied that as an adult and really leaned on selfcare to help me navigate mental health.

Something that’s reflected in “Hood Wellness” is the reality that, for many of us, health care and access to therapy is incredibly challenging. Rather than invalidate their experience, or simply just act like, “Oh, well, that’s the thing that you need,” We talk about what wellness can continue to look like if you do not have the means or the resources for traditional therapy. It’s not to substitute it but it is also to illuminate the reality that we’ve got to use everything that’s in our arsenal.

Starr: You mentioned earlier that you used to do hot yoga, hiking and things like that, which are typically activities people point to to take care of our mental health. Are you saying there’s a time when these activities become distractions from our mental health?

Gordon: When you are a person who is navigating a marginalized intersection, the things we use for selfcare are not going to address the perpetual discrimination, misogynoir and just damn near violence we deal with every single day. So the crux of the challenge of self-care is understanding that the caring of self is vital, but self-care is limiting in regard to getting over a lot of the things that we have to face. That’s something that can really only be done collectively.

Shame loves darkness. So the best thing you can do is air it out and identify that need.

—  Tamela Gordon

Starr: So based on what you have experienced and discussions you’ve had with other people mentioned in your book, what are some of the biggest barriers when it comes to someone taking charge of their mental health?

Gordon: What I would say is that the biggest barriers are finances and accessibility. Like, on period, that’s just what it is. That’s with health care in general and especially with mental health because it’s something that is still not truly prioritized.

When it comes to mental health, the key has always been identifying the immediate needs because whether the challenge is something clinical – in the sense that it is the impact of the world on me – or it’s chemical base – it’s something that I can’t do myself – I still have to be hyper aware of my needs because that’s letting me know the direction I need to go to improve my mental health. That will always let me know you can’t do it yourself. You really need some help, and even if I don’t have the help I need to tell someone that I need the help. It literally can look as simple as going to that other community member and saying, “This is a major problem for me right now.” Shame loves darkness. So the best thing you can do is air it out and identify that need. At the very least it has light and you’ll likely have some direction.

Starr: So how did you go about identifying your needs? I know for some people, that feels hard.

Gordon: Especially as Black women, centering ourselves, prioritizing our needs mentally feels very counterproductive because we’re always at the forefront of doing, giving and facilitating. What I would say, and what I wrote about in “Hood Wellness,” is that moment where I was like, “If I don’t address my needs, I’m going to be in the sunken place forever.”

I had to ask myself, “What are my needs?” And the way I was able to answer that question was with a follow-up question which was, “What have I been going without?” This is when you have to get honest. You can make an excuse all you want for not having the time to eat a quick breakfast and do some breath work in the morning before you leave the house in this crazy world. But if peace of mind is a major need, that’s one of those things where you’re obligated to return to that.

Starr: I know for so many people asking for help is hard. How did you get yourself to the point of breaking down that wall of asking and accepting help?

Gordon: I was able to break the wall by admitting my own exhaustion of acting like a b—h that had it together. The sheer exhaustion of continuing to try to keep up with an Instagram life where I’m making it look good. I’m making it look like I’m okay. But the reality is I’m really dying inside and I’m literally fighting for my life.

The thing about vulnerability – which is what help always comes down to – is it’s so hard to be vulnerable as a Black woman where you are so used to that response, “Well, why can’t you do it? What did you do wrong for that to even happen?” We come from this place where we’re never allowed to be the victim. When you are never allowed to be the victim, vulnerability becomes like a door with a latch on it. Don’t even look at it. It’s not for you. What is in that room, you don’t get it. So instead of waiting for people to say, “It’s okay for you to be vulnerable. It’s okay for you to ask for help,” I just gave it to myself – whether it was talking about the ugly side of being unhoused or a sexual assault that happened at the workplace when I was a bartender.

Shame loves silence. By the grace I gave myself, I freed myself. This vulnerability where I was afraid I would be judged literally opened the door for so many other brave, loving Black women to be like, “Yo, me too. In a different way. But also, me too.” It’s literally only because I had the safety to be a Black woman, to be that honest, to be that loud, that vulnerability was no longer gatekept. It was no longer off the menu for me and it shouldn’t have been off the menu for me or any Black woman. So, how did I get over asking for help? I guess I worked my way up to being that vulnerable.

Starr: What inspired you to take that vulnerability one step further and write the book “Hood Wellness”?

Gordon: What inspired me to put my story out there and the story of others is that our stories, they really are facilitating space. We really are people who have had to go through these things alone and be the community we needed. Telling the stories is an extension of that community because when I was on the verge of being unhoused or I was trying to make a transition in my career, I really didn’t have anybody that was showing me how to do it. I had to kind of figure it out and hope it will work.

So in a lot of ways “Hood Wellness” is that hand to hold whether you are dealing with an STI, you too had mental illness, or you have a physical challenge. There is a place where you can go within that book. Every essay that is in there leaves a little bit of a blueprint for whoever is going through a similar journey.

Starr: What are you telling folks in the mental health field through your book?

Gordon: What I would say to the mental health field is that inability to factor in the nuances of a person’s intersection is just as bad as the white hairstylist that doesn’t know how to do Black hair. You’re not efficient. They need to facilitate that space for us to actually identify and say the thing out loud, without us having to advocate for it or without having to campaign to prove it – to really get it out there and to work with us on that level as opposed to what the textbook says is what they’re supposed to do.

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