Sadiqua Iman has been figuring out how to practice healing — from a distance.

Since the first stay-home order was announced in Washington state, Iman and her colleagues at Nile’s Edge, a healing arts center dedicated to supporting Black healing practitioners in Seattle’s Central District, have been figuring out how to transfer their practice to an online platform. It’s hard, after all, to perform reiki and healing circles virtually. And Zoom fails to capture one of Iman’s favorite methods of healing: song and dance. It’s a full-body process, starting at her toes and ending at the tips of her hands. For Iman, healing means singing. Loudly. At the top of her lungs, in her kitchen, shower, at her healing space in Nile’s Edge.

“That sound therapy? It’s real,” said Iman, a Seattle-based energy and body worker who practices several kinds of massage therapy as well as craniosacral therapy and chakra balancing. “And even though Western culture has taken it and broken it down into a scientific form to study, as people we’ve always sang as a healing force. We’ve come up with our own harmony.”

Iman, a co-founder of Nile’s Edge, is among some of Seattle’s Black female therapists and healers who have spent the past few weeks trying to achieve the impossible: caring for a community that’s grieving, losing jobs and loved ones, and largely unable to gather in some of the more traditional ways of support, such as in church or group therapy, while simultaneously finding time to reckon with their own pain and loss and supporting their families.

Being Black in America has always meant dealing with a social, political and economic othering. That’s why Black healers like Iman, and mental health workers who specialize in race-based trauma, exist. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, recession and protests against systemic racism and in support of Black lives, some Black people are finding they need resources for their mental health more than ever. Black healers are here to take on that work — while dealing with their own mental health, and a lack of funding, space and time.

Anxiety and depression among African Americans zoomed up within a week of the killing of George Floyd, higher than the rate for any other racial or ethnic group, according to The Washington Post, citing U.S. Census Bureau data. And the percentage of Black people experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety over the past few months has been consistently higher than the national average, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by nonprofit research organization The Urban Institute.

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Coronavirus, coupled with the killing of Floyd and the subsequent protests, has left little space for Black mental health workers and healers to breathe or reflect — even with an unprecedented influx of donations sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We’re in a pandemic so there is still not a lot of space for us to truly be out grieving. Because even though donations and support are going out more than ever, people aren’t able to actually be functioning. Numbers are starting to skyrocket again and Black and brown people are receiving the brunt of those heightened cases,” said Iman, who works predominantly with Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer (LGBTQ+) clients. “So are we having this time to be and grieve with our community? Still no. Which means there’s still going to be a large state of unrest in our community even with dollars pouring in.” 

Black people are calling on Black healers more than ever before, at least anecdotally. But as much as some of these Seattle practitioners would like to help, there just isn’t enough time or energy in the day. Among psychologists, for example — just one type of mental health professional — African Americans, who represent 13% of the U.S. population, made up just 4% of the profession in 2015.

“I’m only one person and I’m at capacity,” said Ashley McGirt, a Seattle-based mental health counselor. “The cost of therapy is expensive but therapists need to be compensated for their work.”

Ashley McGirt, a Seattle-based mental health counselor, created the Washington Therapy Fund to provide funds for Black mental health care. (Kariba Photography)
Ashley McGirt, a Seattle-based mental health counselor, created the Washington Therapy Fund to provide funds for Black mental health care. (Kariba Photography)

In trying to combat this, McGirt created the Washington Therapy Fund for people to donate money to cover the costs of free mental health services for Black people — but that isn’t enough. As a racial trauma specialist, McGirt works with Black clients all over the Pacific Northwest. Even before the death of Floyd, McGirt had been getting more and more calls from prospective clients. People are hurting, she says.

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Black people currently make up about 20% of COVID-19 cases, when race is known. And “many of us live in multigenerational homes. So that increases our stress levels and our depression. We have to provide for our family but we don’t want to put our family in danger,” said McGirt. “It takes a significant toll on our psyche and our physical bodies. Some people are getting headaches, migraines, nosebleeds from all of this pressure. The body’s reaction literally starts bleeding out.”

The stresses of being Black aren’t lost on Iman and her colleagues either — but they also can’t afford to do their work for free. Right now, they’re trying to buy their own space — the current Nile’s Edge space is a rental — and create programming that can be done outside or with small groups. They need loudspeakers, drum sets, permits. But for that they need more funding.

“We would love to do all free work like some of our white counterparts, but now you’re putting pressure on a whole group of Black women and Black gender-nonconforming people who have also not received any kind of break,” said Iman.

Bryanna Boyd, a Seattle-based mental health therapist, offers payment for her services on a sliding scale, aiming to “meet [her clients] where they’re at,” but like McGirt, she’s also completely booked — likely into the fall. The influx of business doesn’t bother Boyd — it’s an honor for her to serve as a therapist for BIPOC, she says. Boyd’s brother was killed by police when she was 14; being a Black queer woman with her own experience with grief has allowed her to relate to her clients in a special way.

“I do understand. And I’m not just saying, ‘Yeah, I’m frustrated too and I want to be out in the streets too,’” she says. “Like, I understand.”

Serving as a mental health therapist for Black people is an honor for Seattle-based Bryanna Boyd, but the responsibility has increased over the past few months, she says.  (Naomi Ishisaka / The Seattle Times)
Serving as a mental health therapist for Black people is an honor for Seattle-based Bryanna Boyd, but the responsibility has increased over the past few months, she says. (Naomi Ishisaka / The Seattle Times)
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She asks her clients to let her know that they’re safe if they’re protesting and lets them know they can put down her phone number if they get arrested. “It’s like: ‘How do we take care of each other in other ways that aren’t so sanitized and transactional — like a soft landing place.

“I take the opportunity to have conversations with my Black and brown clients to let them know that I’m with them. I don’t just empathize,” said Boyd. “I use this term with my clients — they’re emotionally on the floor. And I’m on the floor with them.”

McGirt had to take a break. For a week, she turned off her business phone and stopped taking new clients. Working from home has added to the stress of the time; taking on more clients means more screen time, means more time away from self.

“That also takes a toll on your physical body and I had to be more mindful of my mental and physical health,” said McGirt. “On my rest week I made sure I wasn’t doing any type of work.”

For Black folks experiencing stress during this time, all three Seattleite health professionals suggested finding things that bring joy — that’s what they’ve been doing, seeing happiness as a kind of active resistance. Singing, dancing, admiring the trees as you walk your dog, surrounding yourself with like-minded people. Allowing yourself to sometimes be alone and to sometimes seek comfort in others. And, now more than ever before, not being too hard on yourself.

“I’ve just been reiterating that productivity doesn’t equal your worth,” said Boyd. “And we can try to compartmentalize and keep ourselves busy to some degree, but sometimes you just have to lay yourself down and take a nap. Then take another nap. And guess what! Another nap. And it’s OK. In this uncertain time, it’s all fair game.”