Long before July was dubbed Black Mental Health Awareness Month Dr. Willie Mae Lewis was advocating for Blacks to better care for their mental well-being.
For nearly 30 years, Lewis, a counseling psychologist with a Ph.D. from Temple University and undergraduate degrees from TSU and UH, has literally done it all, from seeing patients to teaching at the college level (PVAMU, Temple, Delaware State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore) to developing entire university counseling programs.
Here in Houston, Lewis has made it her mission help Blacks and others clear the hurdles that keep them from investing in their own mental well-being.
“Many people of color fear being labeled crazy or weak, losing their peers, dealing with parents who think you’re telling family business or losing their job because their employer may think something’s wrong with them if they see a therapist,” said Lewis, who categorized most of those fears as myths.
But she contends a fear that’s legitimate is that of “trusting your brain to someone trained in mainstream American approaches” that view whites as the norm and ignore culture, spirituality and others things critical to Black people’s well-being.
“Dr. Lewis uses non-traditional avenues to address mental health issues; she’s an innovator,” said Sister Mama Sonya, a Black mental health advocate who holds many titles including, “edutainer” poet, playwright, actor, motivational speaker, author, minister and founder of 3sisters in the spirit Theatre Ministry.
Lewis’ “non-traditional avenues” emphasize drawing from a person’s culture and family history to address their mental health.
“Everything in mental health must center around how to help that person appreciate themselves from wherever they come from in terms of their culture,” said Lewis, who rejects the mainstream (Eurocentric), one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the role a person’s cultural identity plays in them achieving mental and emotional peace.
“When you’re strong in who you are, and you become knowledgeable and you have synchronized it with your soul and your spirit, then you are moving toward health and balance. Your decisions in the moment are not going to be dictated only by the past. They’re not in the future. You’re going to use and appreciate the past in terms of making decisions in the present and planning for the future,” Lewis added.
Lewis says that when Black people don’t take care of their mental health, the result is a split consciousness that gives birth to a host of negative issues.
“When a person does not center themselves and their mental health, they have so many fragmentations that it’s as if they have nothing. They have very little to hold on to. So, they’re easily distracted from their center, their inner peace. Therefore, you have what you call symptomatic behavior to accommodate to the distractions,” said Lewis.
The “symptomatic behaviors Lewis highlights describe persistent or repetitive behaviors that are unusual, disruptive, inappropriate or cause problems with a person’s relationships, focus, employability and more. According to healthgrades.com examples of these problematic behaviors include aggression, criminal behavior, defiance, drug use, hostility, inappropriate sexual behavior, inattention, secrecy and even physical self-harm like cutting.
According to Sonya, Lewis views improving Black mental health as an all-hands-on-deck affair. Thus, she works with faith leaders, educators, parents and activists through a litany of programs and institutions, including the Institute for Psychological Services through which she provides one-on-one therapy to clients.
Through the Women’s Resource Center, which Lewis founded, she runs the Imani Faith Health Initiative that conducts a state-approved Battering (abuse) Intervention Program and DWI first-time offender program, two issues Lewis contends stem from a lack of mental/emotional well-being; a weekly pastors’ conference call to pull religious leaders and institutions into the battle for healthier Black minds; and Mending Threads, her weekly Facebook Live show (Tuesdays, 7-8am) and rebroadcast via Houston Public Access TV (Tuesdays, 7-8pm).
Lewis also conducts workshops to empower community leaders to better advocate for the mental health of those in their circles. And everything she does is grounded in “Afrocentricity,” using the worldview and perspective of her ancestors and her people; one she says is more communal with a higher emphasis on relationships, connections, cooperation and a person’s culture.
Interestingly, Lewis contends that an Afrocentric approach to whole body wellness is what all people need.
“I tell some of my friends or associates that are Euro-Americans, we’re going to lose all of our children if we don’t begin to teach them to appreciate each other and where each other comes from.”
It’s out of this Afrocentric matrix that Lewis does what she does.
“We provide culturally competent training to persons and we bridge the mental health with the Imani Faith Health Initiative that focuses on diet. We use these in the training for mental health coaches so that we can help people be trained, pastors, teachers, persons that are coming in contact with other people. We also have the mental health coaching program that goes out in the community to help people learn how to appreciate another person’s culture.
If it seems like Lewis operates non-stop, that’s because she does, tirelessly working to grow her army of mental health advocates because it’s her divine calling.
“You know how people say, ‘God called me to do this?’ Well, God really did call me to do all these things. Because I want to stop sometimes, but God keeps saying, ‘You know, you gotta do this because somebody’s got to do this.’ And I was also taught, never complain about something if you are not going to do something about it. So, even when people try to stop you from doing something about it, it is a strength of your belief in which you continue,” Lewis shared.
Lewis says the Lord has put it on her heart to train more people in the community to become mental health advocates.
“The Lord is leading me to come up with an institute associated with a youth school. An institute that will train coaches and teachers how to treat other people. I have to find the university and the K-12 school that can accommodate that. I’ve got to have a university and a community school in order to bridge these two. So, I have prayed about this and meditated, but this is what has to happen.”