When the Ancestors tell you to go to therapy
Generational work is breaking the cycle of sweeping mental health under the rug. I do this for myself, my ancestors and my descendants.
There aren’t enough accessible therapists to go around. I met this reality after an Ifa divination that I got while I was in Cuba, and my dreams for an entire year afterward, told me that I needed to focus on my mental health. My ancestors were LOUD about the mental work that I needed to do to heal myself, my descendants, and my dead folks. It took me over a year to find a therapist that fit.
Last year, when I announced that I found a therapist and started going to therapy, I received a multitude of responses – from acceptance to shade. While the majority were supportive, some people in the spiritual community took it as a signal that my practices weren’t up to par. This response is not unlike those that some folks within the church get when they share their desire to seek emotional support from outside of the church.
There still remains people that are distrustful of therapy, and simultaneously hesitant to acknowledge mental illness at all. For Black folks, that’s understandably so. The medical industry has not been one developed with the wellness of Black people at the forefront of its progress. Deep within the psyche of the Black experience lies blood memory of the ways our ancestors were experimented on, which directly relates to how many of us still experience racialized mistreatment while receiving medical care.
One of the earliest experiences Black folks had with the western development of psychology was the creation of “drapetomania,” a conjectural diagnosis that labeled enslaved people escaping the brutal system of chattel slavery as having a mental illness. In “The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry, 1840–1880” Wendy Gonaver uncovers what Black folks have known about the mental health industry all along: that “slavery influenced ideas about patient liberty, about the proper relationship between caregiver and patient, about what constituted healthy religious belief and unhealthy fanaticism, and about gender. This early form of psychiatric care acted as a precursor to public health policy for generations.”
Due to the (earned) distrust, we’ve had generations of people saying “take it to Jesus,” in response to any mental or emotional distress. I’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon in the African/Diasporic Religion communities, with people citing “take it to the ancestors” (or deities). That form of spiritual bypassing in the face of mental health issues is a holdover from the Black Christian tradition, that denies the need for any kind of cognitive intervention for mental illness that’s outside of prayer.
The attitude around mental health in the Black community, and the mental health industry itself, are changing. Yet there are still many hurdles around accessible and competent health care for Black people, especially for those practicing Black, Indigenous, spiritual traditions.
When looking for someone that is sociopolitically astute, accepting of all spiritualities, queer affirming, and affordable, people like me have few options. This hurdle compounds some of the anti-therapy attitude already found in our communities.
Talk-therapy is still important despite the hurdles, the same way that physical therapy is important after certain bodily traumas – it helps you better learn how to cope, name your needs, know your limits, and understand that this condition is part of your experience – not the end of you.
In times predating late stage capitalism and imperialism, and in times during, Indigenous peoples across the globe had various forms of mental health care. From one-on-one time with priests and diviners, rituals, warriors staying with diviners after war to recalibrate their energies before they reintegrated into the community, to the application of roots and herbs to address mental ailments.
In some traditions, there are deities whose realm includes mental illness: Obatala in Yoruba tradition, and Agwu in Igbo tradition. Our ancestors knew how to engage.
In the tradition of Hoodoo, Iya Ifayomi (Onisegun (Yoruba herbalist), Herbalist, Iyanifa (Isese), Rootworker (Hoodoo), Mvskoke (Muskogee) Medicine, and proprietor of Ancestral Herbiary ) informs us that “when it came to mental illnesses, many of the healers would use a knot amulet that’s been prayed over using varying scriptures, and treated in an herbal bath to be worn by the client. This was in the hopes of whatever was plaguing them mentally, would be transferred to the amulet. Once the amulet had broken, it would be considered ‘dead’ at that point, and then burned to make sure the illness would not be returned.”
In a video explaining different types of spiritual priests known as Dibias in Igbo spirituality of Odinala, Derick Ofodirinwa, the Odinala practitioner/researcher behind The Medicine Shell, says “The traditional Dibia’s practice is broken down into multiple categories, with each Dibia serving as a specialist in a particular area of training and expertise, similar to a modern day doctor today. There’s Dibia Ara, a Dibia dedicated to the study of the mind and solving problems that arise from psychological disturbances. Outside of applying medicine or therapy to heal, or regulate the affliction, the Dibia Ara also built lodges where the mentally afflicted would stay for extended periods of time.“
Due to the demonization of African religions, old ways of mental health care can still feel out of reach for many, much like old ways of taking care of spiritual leaders are now challenged by the current global economy. However, the current wave of reclamation of African, Diasporic, and Indigenous traditions may put availability of these cultural practices in easier reach than the past decades.
As we adjust to the current world, we learn how and when to outsource our needs. There are currently more people within Black, Indigenous practices needing talk therapy than there are Black, Indigenous spiritual clergy who specialize in the intersection of spirituality and mental health.
For those with access to a competent and capable diviner, therapy doesn’t have to be an opposing ritual. You can take spiritual baths and see your therapist in the same week.
“Part of my spiritual homework and prescriptions always include some type of mental health work,” Jenina Pellegren, Diviner, Herbal Practitioner, behike (Taino for medicine/juju person). “It’s very hard to convince folks to seek out mental health services. It’s a touchy subject to broach and I’ve had clients cancel me for it, and for drawing lines around certain works for certain intentions.”
Indigenous Religions, spiritual traditions, and ancestral connections are powerful, necessary dimensions in decolonized healing. Divinations and spiritual baths need not be a replacement for therapy. All of those things can work wonderfully together. Therapy can be argued as a form of “head work”.
“’Head work’ refers to the process of improving one’s relationship with, and the health of, one’s personal spirit. In much of traditional African philosophy, the head is said to be the seat of the soul/personal spirit, which is itself a facet of a Higher Self that exists in harmony with the Divine Whole (see: Yoruba “orí”, or Igbo “chi”).
Head work is intended to open up the lines of communication with one’s personal spirit to allow for communication, instructions, blessings, and support to flow; as it is understood that no work can be successful without the express consent and support of one’s ‘head’,” Gerard Miller; Conjure, Rootworker, Ceremonial Queer.
In Indigenous traditions, like African Traditional Religions, there is a duty to work on elevating consciousness for current and future generations, as well as working to undo generational curses in the form of familial dysfunctions, unaddressed mental stresses that come from the environment, and a host of other psycho-emotional challenges supported by being in connection with ancestors.
If we don’t learn how to do things like encourage healthy coping methods, minimize self doubt, take part in crafting systems of accountability, work on our body image, start working through the impact that neglect, abuse, mistreatment and the lies those things tell us about ourselves, it can make it difficult to receive the blessings we ask for. Like trying to hold a present with closed hands.
I noticed I was perpetuating generational curses when my self doubt didn’t allow me to receive blessings, even when they came from my ancestors. Things as simple as compliments, affirmations, and offers from others to help. I would pray and petition for relief, and my fear of vulnerability wouldn’t allow me to accept assistance when they’d come in the form of friends and family reaching out. I had a hyper critical voice in my head that chastised me for not being able to do it all. I know this voice is the same voice that one of my parents, and their parents, had in their head, and then passed it on to me unintentionally.
It’s both my duty and my desire to make sure this issue stops with me and does not pass on to my children. I break the generational curses of my ancestors by going to therapy, getting divinations, and doing various rituals simultaneously. The benefits range from having generations after me better able to receive blessings, and battling for some of the ideas and mentalities around production and work informed by post traumatic slave syndrome.
I won’t allow other people’s shame and denial of their own issues perpetrate the spiritual version of “heaven is the reward”-ing me out of addressing and improving my mental health in THIS lifetime. Especially when part of my generational work is breaking the cycle of sweeping mental health under the rug. I do this for myself, my ancestors, and my descendants. That’s why finding a culturally competent therapist, and not being afraid to ask them questions about how they approach their practice, was a priority for me. I deserve great mental health care, and so do you. Traditionally, we did not ignore mental health issues – we did something about it.
Gene Leigh Zeigler MS, LPC (a therapist that specializes in Racial Identity, Trauma & PTSD, Women’s Issues, Anxiety & Panic , LGBTQIA+ Affirming, and those practicing African/Diaspora/Ancestral spiritual traditions), suggests, “ask any prospective therapist about their background and training. And not just about cultural competency because that is not enough.I received only one class in graduate school around ‘diversity’.. It can also get tricky because if you tell your therapist you are ‘hearing voices’ they may misdiagnose you. Flat out ask about their knowledge of ATRs. Please do not be afraid to assert yourself when asking, you deserve it. “
For therapists looking to expand their culture base, Zeigler suggests they educate themselves and be open to understanding ATR in relation to therapeutic practices. “Your #1 rule is to do no harm: If you cannot do your job, refer the person to another therapist who can.”