Ever Feel Like Talking to Your Hairstylist Is Like Talking to a Therapist? This Organization Is Providing Training to Make Stylists Official Mental-Health Advocates

Photo: Stocksy/Hernandez & Sorokina & W+G Creative
POV: You’re sitting in your favorite hair salon with freshly washed hair and you glance at your phone. You see a notification that triggers some negative feelings and let out a huff of annoyance. Your hairstylist asks if everything is okay, and you can’t help but launch into a long-winded rant about what’s bothering you.

Sound familiar? Plenty of others have been in your shoes (or, chair). In fact, spilling your emotions to your stylist is actually pretty common: One in three salon-goers consider their stylist to be like a therapist. But, most hairstylists don’t have any mental health training, let alone a degree in psychology.

Clinical psychologist and hairstylist Afiya M. Mbilishaka, PhD, has all of the above, though, and she's made it her life's work to support mental health through hair care (now with an assist from Maui Moisture). “I had one pivotal phone call with my Aunt Brenda that helped me figure out exactly what to do after college graduation,” Mbilishaka says. “I said, 'I don't know if I want to study psychology or hair,' and my aunt says, 'Why can't you do both?’”

Although Mbilishaka’s aunt was probably suggesting she attempt to balance her two passions, Mbilishaka took it literally and started looking for ways she could combine them, while also addressing the huge mental health disparities in Black communities.

“To engage Black women on a cultural level, mental health providers must acknowledge the significance of hair and make use of the existing social support of hairstylists, the natural helpers in the community,” Mbilishaka says.

That’s how she came up with the idea for PsychoHairapy. As she reflected on her own experiences and culled through data that showed that Black women are more likely to book a hair-care appointment than a mental-health appointment, she cultivated a plan to equip stylists to provide support to their communities that they might not otherwise receive.

"The purpose PsychoHairapy is to direct attention to treatment modalities that culturally and spiritually fit within the lives of Black women," she says. "To reach large numbers of this population, PsychoHairapy is centered on addressing the psychological needs of people who are often neglected, by offering accessible options in the safe space of the hair salon."

The 12-hour, skills-based training course developed by Mbilishaka covers three key areas: the history of Black hair, how to identify, understand, and empathize with signs of mental illness, and how to respond to common client mental-health concerns.

“Hairstylists who have taken the course have become emotional over realizing their work could have such a far-reaching impact,” Mbilishaka says. “There is no mental health training in cosmetology school, therefore, hairstylists appreciate getting the language to process the emotions that come up in their chair. Hairstylists [also] love learning about the history of our hair in particular, and enjoy practicing techniques of...reframing some of the concerns coming up in their clients' lives.”

PsychoHairapy also teaches the stylists how to make referrals to mental health professionals if a client reveals a concern that would necessitate speaking with a professional, Mbilishaka says.

All the good work PsychoHairapy is doing within the textured hair community caught the attention of curly-hair-care brand Maui Moisture, whose stated mission is to provide curl confidence to help improve the self-esteem of women in the textured hair community.

“Psychologists are trained to have quiet conversations about mental health, but Maui Moisture has developed a reputation of amplifying the most critical conversations in the textured hair community,” says Mbilishaka (who uses Maui Moisture products in her own hair).

Because getting a PsychoHairapy certification costs $600, which is a significant investment for many stylists, Maui Moisture donated $100,000 to PsychoHairapy to support the training of 100+ hairstylists and barbers while also helping expand the program's reach.

“The possibilities of how mental health professionals can collaborate with hairstylists to enter spaces tailored for sisterhood-supported wellness is limitless,” Mbilishaka says. And thanks to the work of both PsychoHairapy and Maui Moisture, the future of transforming salons into safe spaces for all looks bright.

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