Mental health treatment is a Black tradition, white people just took credit for it
Praying mental illness away is only a tiny fragment of Black history and culture.
by Imade Nibokun
Black people invented mental health treatment before the “pray it away” stigma and the white supremacy that produced it. While Black folks continue to address the stigmas attached to mental illness, we must also acknowledge that Black mental health practitioners existed first.
The first known physician in history is an Egyptian architect and doctor named Imhotep. He served as a vizier during Pharoah Djoser’s reign from 2667-2648 B.C.E. This Egyptian healer discovered that mental health conditions should be viewed scientifically through diagnosis and treatment. His science however, blended with his spirituality. Imhotep employed temple sleep as a form of psychotherapy. Treatment was chosen based on a person’s dreams and answers from deities.
Imhotep’s mental health legacy can be seen in the Ebers Papyrus document. This medical papyrus was written around 1500 B.C.E. but includes sources from as early as 3,400 B.C.E. Imhotep is believed to be responsible for much of the document’s groundbreaking content that diagnosed depression as a condition of the heart.
Ebers Papyrus foreshadowed how researchers are now looking outside the brain to study mental health conditions. It is common to analyze gut health and the interplay between the body’s different regulatory systems when treating mental illness.
Imhotep’s discoveries existed over 2,000 years before Greek physician Hippocrates, who is known for being the father of medicine. Though mental health medicine books like Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon don’t mention doctors of African lineage, their work has contributed to the medical gains we have today.
White supremacy has impacted the history of mental health treatment in centering white doctors who appropriated our groundbreaking research. But black mental health pioneers like Frantz Fanon have worked to extricate mental health treatment from a white lens.
In 1954, Dr. Thomas Lambo began his tenure as the director of Aro Mental Hospital. Chronicled in The Residents’ Journal, a subset of The American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Lambo set out to replace the British asylum system as Nigeria was making strides towards their 1960 independence. Dr. Lambo asked members of the surrounding village to rent out their rooms to house patients. He created a 24/7 nursing center and required patients to move in with a family member to address fears that a patient could become violent or too difficult to live with. (This stigma existed then just as it does now.)
The Aro Village Project became a hospital-diversion program where caretakers helped patients make their appointments and participated in family therapy sessions.Traditional healers were involved in group activities and indigenous beliefs could coexist alongside therapy and medication.
Wealth was kept within Aro’s community as well. Rent was paid to local residents in currency or labor if patients didn’t have enough money. Some village members gave a portion of their rent payments to Aro Hospital for the building’s electricity and plumbing. And in return, Aro Hospital gave rent earnings back to local residents for home renovations. Dr. Lambo created a community-based outpatient program that eliminated financial barriers to treatment.
His inclusive approach transformed how Aro residents viewed mental illness. Dr. Lambo and his staff illustrated how important it is for mental health support to be done within the community rather than outside of it.
Mental health advocates like Victor Ugo, founder of Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, are still fighting to repeal the colonial-era Lunacy Act that impedes Dr. Lambo’s vision for community-based mental health treatment.
Black LGBTQIA+ healers have largely been erased in the history of documented mental health treatment. But that is changing.
Cara Page, a founding member of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, brought trauma-informed care to activists shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Page coined the term “healing justice” to describe the employment of healing traditions that address generational trauma through a liberatory framework. Healing justice includes Reiki, acupuncture, massage, and bodywork from practitioners who know the historical context of their healing medium and the communities that they serve.
Yolo Akili, the founder of the Black Emotional and Mental Health collective also known as BEAM, is a mental health educator Akili’s work is inspired by Page’s healing justice and Joseph Beam’s art that embraced the beauty of Black gay men and the need to confront misogyny and toxic masculinity.
Generative somatics (gs) is another treatment modality used in activist spaces. This therapy focuses on the transformation that happens when a person embodies their values by addressing and healing from trauma and oppressive social conditions. “Nobody heals alone,” said lead somatics facilitator Alta Starr in “Cultivating the Self: Embodied Transformation for Artists.” “Somatics brings people back into their physical selves, whose health, fitness, and appearance they may monitor and address with great care, but which they rarely fully feel.”
Now, there is an infrastructure forming to center the mental health needs of Black queer and trans people. This includes the work that Erica Woodland is doing as a psychotherapist and Founding Director of the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network.
Praying mental illness away is only a tiny fragment of Black history and culture. And though we do need to acknowledge stigma, there are two elements that are often forgotten: our historical achievement and our imagination. Mental health treatment is part of the Black tradition. Our diverse voices and contributions shaped history. And what we do now to mentally heal ourselves is simply a continuation of our legacy.
Imade (ee-MAH-day) is a writer and mental health advocate who founded Depressed While Black. She is a suicide attempt survivor who lives with clinical depression and borderline personality disorder. Imade first developed Depressed While Black as her 2015 Columbia University Non-Fiction Creative Writing MFA thesis. depressedwhile black.com has grown to an online community, an in-progress book, and numerous speaking appearances.