Healthy Talks: Therapy and Mental Health With Dr. Ayanna Abrams
By Donyetta Edwards
The year 2020 made a lot of us aware of many topics that we previously were “too busy” or “moving too fast” to give attention to. Mental health is one of those topics. Mental health is defined as a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being. Historically, mental health, mental illness, and therapy have been mislabeled as something that is negative, for the weak, or only for certain groups of people. The reality is that many things, even those things that we overlook, can affect the mental health of each and every one of us. As part of our Healthy Talks, we sat down with Dr. Ayanna Abrams, a runner and a licensed clinical psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, to unpack mental health, therapy, and the infamous “running is my therapy” slogan many runners use.
Donyetta: Tell us about yourself and where you are from!
Dr. Abrams: Hey! I’m Dr. Ayanna Abrams and I’m a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, GA. I’ve got a bit of travel history under my belt; Born in NYC and raised in New Jersey, lived in Syracuse, NY and Chicago, IL for school, and moved to Atlanta in 2010 to finish my doctorate and never left! My education/career pursuit has taken me all over the place. I’m the youngest of three, born to immigrant parents from Guyana, South America, which makes life in the United States interesting, to say the least! Currently, my parents still reside up north and my older siblings both live in Europe, so the travel bug definitely runs in the family.
Donyetta: How did you decide that you wanted to become a clinical psychologist?
Dr. Abrams: I didn’t know it then, but I’ve been working on/in my career since I was 17 and first learned about psychology during a class my senior year of high school. We watched a movie called Pay It Forward and I was deeply drawn to how the main young character empathized with others, the plight of his mother and teacher and the community grief when tragedy struck. I still cry to this day with that movie! I double majored in Psychology and African American Studies to pair the history of the Black experience across the African diaspora with the history of psychological treatment and mistreatment of Black people to help make sense of our current functioning. This has set the foundation for my entire clinical practice and my general worldview about people, culture and health.
Donyetta: Tell us about your running journey, how did it begin?
Dr. Abrams: Oh, what a journey it has been! I started running in 2013 after participating in some charity walks and enjoying them. I entered a few random races before seeking out a running community that would hold me accountable and help me meet people in Atlanta. Though I had been here for some years, school and the beginnings of entrepreneurship didn’t offer much room to socialize. I joined a group in 2014 and this opened my eyes (and heart) up so widely to running that I haven’t looked back! I met so many people in this group and some of them remain my closest friends. Meeting other groups of runners both local and outside of Atlanta and Georgia has also deepened my love for the community at large, how we support one another and the power of bearing witness to examples of Black people actively pursuing physical fitness. That was new to me when I first began running.
Donyetta: What has running taught you about yourself?
Dr. Abrams: The biggest thing that running has taught me is compassion. I was learning this before 2016 as a beginner to using my body in such a rigorous way, but at the end of that year, I had a major surgical procedure that laid me out for a few months, and getting back into running was HARD. I, like most of us, am my own worst critic, so not running as fast, as easy or as fun as I would prefer can leave me feeling pretty inadequate most times and comparing myself negatively to running peers and even strangers. Running, and more specifically, racing, was a gift and a curse to my ego. Through practicing compassion, I let my body do what it needed, rested when I needed to and learned more and more not to push myself past healthy limits for arbitrary gains on my Garmin or what I thought people thought of my pace. I still had goals, but I learned to criticize myself less and recalibrate my habits to be more effective and less shame based. Running also taught me the importance of rest, literally slowing down to integrate new skills/muscle, and how important it is to listen to my body, not my ego.
Donyetta: The infamous runner question, are you chasing 6 Star status?
Dr. Abrams: Lol, absolutely NOT! It’s actually unlikely that I will train for or complete a marathon in my lifetime. Never say never, but I’ve NEVER been interested in running for that long and training for that long. I do enjoy half marathons and I love a good 10k distance, but what it requires to train for a marathon has not piqued my interest. At times I wonder if it’s because I don’t “think” I could do it, but I think I can. I just really enjoy sleep, work and weekends in bed!
Donyetta: Runners often say, “running is my therapy”. How do you feel about that statement and why?
Dr. Abrams: As an actual therapist, that comment makes my head hurt every single time I hear it! Whew. I totally understand what it means, but it also shows how much people do not understand what therapy really is. Running and other activities that bring health benefits and help offer some mindfulness are therapeutic, but it’s not the same as a treatment relationship with a professional who is helping you address various areas of your life through empathy, creating treatment plans, accountability, and expertise. Running is a wonderful adjunct to participating in therapy, but it is not the same thing as the vulnerability and life skills that you practice with a therapist. Do both, folks. Do both.
Donyetta: Mental health is somewhat of a taboo subject in the Black community. Why do you think that is and how has it impacted your clients?
Dr. Abrams: Psychological treatment and communities of color, specifically Black communities have a long and racist past. Historically, adequate treatment has not been offered to Black people and in fact, we have been severely mistreated by our medical system. Issues like over-diagnosis of psychiatric issues, inadequate healthcare structures and availability, racist therapists and leaders in the field; are all a part of the reason why Black people do not typically seek out mental health care as a FIRST resort. Pair this with the cost of some services, it is understandable, though not helpful at all for us, as we are also more likely to experience psychiatric distress due to the various impacts of systemic racism. One of my main focal points in care for Black clients is racism based trauma care, offering empathic and non-judgmental space to address how racism has impacted how they view themselves and ways to unlearn this in order to improve self esteem, manage mental health issues and crises and often leave or redirect from scenarios and relationships that are culturally oppressive. Helping clients understand that they are not inherently wrong, bad, inadequate or unlovable, is oftentimes part of our work, while also addressing day to day functioning and goals.
Donyetta: What is the biggest misconception you have found that people have about mental health or therapy?
Dr. Abrams: Therapy is still often viewed as for “weak” or only reserved for the rich (and white), as though it’s a luxury vs. part of your basic and fundamental healthcare needs. There is a stigma attached to wanting or needing help throughout life, possibly benefitting from medication use, and talking to a “stranger” about your “business”. We have certainly come a LONG way to bust these myths, but they are still pretty pervasive in the Black community. Therapy is also oftentimes viewed and contradictory to religious or spiritual practice, which can leave many of us feeling isolated, distressed and more likely to experience a mental health crisis by not accessing various sources of support.
Donyetta: Have you faced any challenges as a Female and a Person of Color as a psychologist?
Dr. Abrams: There are several challenges being a Black woman psychologist, namely not having as much mentorship during training with leaders who looked like me and were interested in the same social and psychological solutions that I was. Depending on where and how you train, it’s likely that there are no Black leaders or supports, which can be isolating and can affect your sense of emotional and cultural safety during such a rigorous training period of 6-8 years. Additionally, once in the field independently, my access to opportunity and collegial support requires much more effort to cultivate, so I actively (sometimes over-actively) seek these relationships out so that I have buffers and spaces to be my full safe self.
Donyetta: I know you’re big on boundaries and the benefits that having them brings to our mental health and overall lives. As a psychologist and a runner, how have you handled implementing your own personal boundaries?
Dr. Abrams: You know I love a good boundary with a period at the end! Thank you for your consistent support. I’m still a work in progress as we all are; the main areas that I’ve found it most beneficial to set personal boundaries are surrounding my sleep schedule, limits on how much and how often I push my body physically, and (the harder one) how much time I spend on social media and watching TV. Because I love being social and learning new things, I use social media A LOT to make connections, especially with other runners, groups and leaders. However, this used to be overwhelming for me because I would engage in negative comparisons about my body type, weight, pace, races completed, etc. So I wasn’t using social media in the most healthy way and I had to shift who I was following and what I was getting from this engagement. Additionally, I pulled away from racing a while ago because it was no longer fun to feel so much pressure to perform, and I had lost the leisure I once had with running. It’s been helpful getting back to running for fun and connection, but I needed to set limits on what I was looking for and attempting to be in this practice. My circle is much tighter now and I’m much more compassionate with my body and my headspace!
Donyetta: What reliable resources are available for those who want to learn more about mental health and therapy?
Dr. Abrams: There are fortunately so many resources online these days. I recommend nami.com for information on ways to support yourself and loved ones who may be dealing with a mental health issue. There are TONS of therapists online that people follow for nuggets of health (of note: this does not replace having therapy with a professional. Online education and support is not therapy) so finding therapists to follow has been helpful for some who don’t have adequate access to care. Sites like therapyforblackgirls.com, inclusivetherapists.com and psychologytoday.com are wonderful directories with thousands of therapists for you and your loved ones. Also, every state has a psychological association that often has information on their website about ways to access care where you are located.
Donyetta: Tell us how to stay in contact with you!
Dr. Abrams: Sure! The best ways to find me and what I’m offering the community is on Instagram at @dr_ayanna_a. My websites (currently being updated) are www.AscensionBehavioralHealth.com and www.drabramsabh.com and I can also be found on Facebook at Ascension Behavioral Health, LLC!