Q&A: Patrisse Cullors and Kendrick Sampson on mental health, defending Black life, and Black joy

Q&A: Patrisse Cullors and Kendrick Sampson on mental health, defending Black life, and Black joy

By Patrisse Cullors and Kendrick Sampson

Amidst this war on Black bodies, we are being saturated with content about Black death and violence. It is critical in this moment of rebellion and uprising to find moments to consume and live within Black joy. Black joy amongst our loved ones, Black joy in celebration of our resilience, Black joy within the music and stories we make and tell. Black Joy is revolutionary. This is where we can find our center. Black joy is how we deepen our commitment to the struggle for Black freedom. But Black Joy can be challenging to connect to if we are not tending to our mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health. It is all interconnected. We urge every Black person to reassess their well-being in this moment and have an honest conversation with yourself about where you are at and what you might need.

It’s okay to not be okay, right now and always. There is no weakness within that vulnerability. But we can say that, now more than ever, we need to set and adhere to boundaries that protect us from burnout and constant retriggering. We recommend keeping on deck essential nervous system support items like restorative teas such as lavender, Valerian root, or tulsi tea; CBD tincture; and epsom salt for soaking. We are huge advocates for talk therapy, and there are several spaces that are offering free therapy to Black people in Los Angeles County. In addition to talk therapy, the Headspace app is also now free for all LA County residents. Most importantly, be in community. This work is heavy and we need to reach out to our support systems and ask for what we need. 

We are blessed to have an incredible community of support, but this community did not come neatly packaged and ready to go. This community was made over the years with the intentional efforts to support one another, lots of courageous conversations, and holding one another accountable to our health and well-being.

At the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and as the movement for Black lives was reignited when the nation became aware of the murder of George Floyd, we sat down (virtually) during the quarantine to talk about mental health. Below, we share the highlights of our conversation. We hope that it is useful for you, especially in this critical moment as we fight for our lives.

The conversation has been consolidated and edited for clarity and length.  

On our personal connection to the issues of mental health and incarceration

Kendrick Sampson: Patrisse, you were recently profiled in a new documentary by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg on mental illness and incarceration called Bedlam. How did the intersection of your journey and your brother Monte’s journey lead you to become passionate about mental health?

Patrisse Cullors: I think one of the things that I recognized growing up in a poor neighborhood, a working class community, was that much of what folks were doing was just surviving. There was no time for a conversation around care, let alone self-care. And as we grew up and as I got older and started to recognize my own struggles with depression and anxiety, and witnessed my brother having severe mental illness, I realized there was no support. There was nobody around to actually talk to us about our mental health.

Everybody has mental health. This is not something that’s relegated to people who suffer from mental health issues. We all have a body, we all have a brain, we all have emotions, and we’re impacted by our environments. It took really teaching ourselves, our family, and having to learn pretty brutally [through] the police state and the incarceration state completely dehumanizing and humiliating my brother and my family and receiving no real, adequate care. The only thing that we received was police and prisons. I think as a young person, [I started] recognizing that was unacceptable, and that there needed to be more than what we were being given or we were being told.

Sampson: Yeah. I know how scary that can be, especially when it’s you or your loved ones.

Cullors: You and I have had many conversations about mental health, and it’s in fact one of the things that has deepened our friendship. Could you share what your connection is to this issue? What is important to you about speaking about mental health in this pandemic and revolutionary moment?

Sampson: Personally, I have pretty debilitating anxiety at times. We have a broad spectrum of mental health issues in my family, and me and many loved ones [have gone through] the trial and error process of addressing their mental health and trying to help [each] other. It can be challenging, heartbreaking, and also very normal. I believe this country and world could be exponentially better if we prioritized liberating mental health. The history and the foundation of America is rife with our ancestors’ trauma (Black and Indigenous). Systems have been built to target us, divide us, and constantly extract the resources we need to be physically, spiritually, financially, and mentally well, while simultaneously injecting further physical and mental trauma. This is why we are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and any crisis. Black people in America have been in crisis for 400 years, and I think we are at a tipping point where we see an opening and we are not going back. I think it’s more important than ever to fight to abolish these systems that force trauma on us, but to ensure that the resources that are freed through that process of abolition are invested in our reparations and healing. [Because] we don’t have a mental healthcare system right now. Our mental healthcare system is incarceration.

Cullors: That’s exactly right.

Sampson: I was looking at an article yesterday from The Atlantic that said 55% of men and 73% of women in our state jails and prisons are suffering from some sort of mental illness. That disparity shows the intersectionality and oppression, and it’s a clear indicator that our mental health is criminalized. Our grief is criminalized. We see it now, with COVID-19. We’re out in the streets, finally able to connect with each other, trying to have funerals and a lot of us grieving in public, and we have a completely different experience with police as always. On one hand, they’re brutalizing Black folks and brown folks, and on the other hand, they’re handing out masks to whites for the same “crime” of not social distancing properly.

On prioritizing self-care while working toward justice

Sampson: You are juggling multiple projects and campaigns—from your writings to spearheading Reform LA Jails and running Dignity and Power Now. What practices do you implement in your personal life for your own self-care and wellness? 

Cullors: I see a therapist. Before COVID-19, I was seeing a therapist twice a month, and now I’m there twice a week. I’m a big, big, big proponent of therapy. Whether it’s talk therapy, somatic therapy, cognitive therapy—there’s so many therapeutic models out there now. But do it. Go to therapy. There’s low-cost therapy. We should all have a therapist—one that is culturally competent, that is politically competent, and that can support us. [In addition to therapy,] I love Chinese herbs, and I’m a big fan of acupuncture, Reiki, bodywork, [though] I obviously can’t do acupuncture right now. I started acupuncture probably when I was in my early 20s, and it really shifted so much of my own trauma. Because trauma isn’t just about our emotions, trauma also activates our bodies.

It’s challenging [with] Western medicine. Although I believe people should go to doctors and things if they can, Western medicine is so inherently racist and has such a horrible history that I get it when our folks don’t want to go. Because historically, these places have been places of terror, [with] so many times where our bodies were used as experiments, like with Henrietta Lacks. So I really tend to lean towards alternative medicine, but I’m not going to say that I’m against Western medicine. I think there’s a place for a healthy merger and a way to relate to health and wellness. We have the agency, right? The medical industrial complex takes away our agency to care for ourselves, but I think over the years I’ve really developed not just with myself, but with my community, a really strong sense of what is health and wellness for me, and [asking] how do I take agency, and how do I have power over my health and wellness? It’s complicated when you live in a racist, sexist, capitalist structure, because it’s all about taking away your agency. So what does that look like? And [agency] is not to be confused with the politics of personal responsibility. I’m saying that the way we challenge the medical industrial complex, collectively, is creating infrastructures of care that really build our power back.

As one example, Dignity and Power Now runs a health and wellness clinic. It’s going to have to be transformed this year, but over the last eight years, we started running wellness clinics outside of jail facilities. During the summer months, we went to every single jail facility across LA County, and we would do yoga, we would do arts. We would just have this space, outside of probably one of the most traumatic places, but it was about [thinking], how do we radically care for each other in public? How do we take away this idea that the way that we care for each other is behind this clinical white wall where nobody can see you? Rather, how do we publicly show up for each other? That is now being led by Guadalupe Chavez, the health and wellness director at Dignity and Power Now, and it’s a beautiful crew and a beautiful experience.

What about you, Kendrick? We are all experiencing a global shift in the world—the world we knew no longer exists. What are some things you are grieving at this moment? How are you holding space for that grief? And how are you tending to your own mental health?

Sampson: I am grieving not being able to do some of my favorite things in life: work and be creative on set, filming, and performing. It’s what I love. It’s also how I pay my bills. I am grieving sitting down and eating at restaurants. I love food. I’m grieving regular sit downs. I’m not a fan of talking on the phone or FaceTime—I always prefer in-person communication. I do my best to acknowledge that nostalgia or longing. I do my best to meditate and allow myself to feel how I feel without judgment. I do my best to dig deeper if I’m up to it and seek the root and the truth of those feelings. I meditate or pray. I do my best to figure out how to turn obstacles into advantages. I need to be a lot better at sleep—that is my weak spot in my physical and mental health.  

Cullors: And what advice would you give around how to take care of your mental health?

Sampson: I definitely advocate for therapy if it’s accessible. There are services that offer free and affordable therapy or counseling, so if it’s at all possible and accessible, I definitely encourage that. Fresh air, sun (especially for those with more melanin) is important, proper nutrition, plenty of water, exercise, and healthy community. Setting yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals and working to execute them is also helpful. Having breathing exercises ready in high anxiety times has become essential. My go-to is controlled inhaling for four seconds, holding for seven seconds, and controlled exhaling for eight seconds. I change up the numbers sometimes. Being involved in social justice, good work, being a part of the solution also helps me to not fall into hopelessness.  

I also understand there are personal and systemic blocks to all of these things. The most important thing to me is this: If I don’t hit any of my goals of exercise, sun, work, social justice, whatever it may be—its okay. We have to be kind to ourselves, allow ourselves grace, empathy and reality. It’s okay to not be okay. Let go of the “I can’t complain,” mentality that implies that if we complain we are not grateful. We can be grateful and in pain, uncomfortable, or just simply “not okay” all at the same time.  

Patrisse, you just wrote a book that touches on all this called When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. What lessons do you hope readers take from the book and implement in their own lives? What is an action they can take—at home, at work, etc.—to dismantle the incarceration system and expand mental health access for all?

Cullors: One of the first things is acknowledging and allowing yourself to destigmatize this idea that being sad, depressed, having anxiety, [or being] vulnerable is bad. Let that shit go. We all have to collectively recognize that much of what we live in is a pretty traumatic place, and it’s going to deeply impact us and the way we raise our children. So, the first thing to do is recognize it, look at it head-on, and then you get to decide what to do with it. If you cannot recognize something, you can’t actually make an informed decision around what to do with it. That was critical for me, like: “Okay, I have depression, I suffer from anxiety and depression.” And sometimes I’m on point with everything, and sometimes it totally destabilizes me, and then sometimes I’ve been on meds and sometimes I haven’t been. I need to allow myself to understand that, really recognizing what it takes to acknowledge what’s happening.

Then from there is being able to reach out and be like, okay, there’s a whole world around me of people who are also impacted by mental health issues, [so] how can I show up? I’m a big fan of [the advice to] join something. Volunteer, be a member of an organization, and your own local community. That is such a great and active way of being responsive to your environment. You don’t have to be the person who’s going to every protest and having to do everything. No, you can be the person who’s on the listserv, signing the petitions, making phone calls when you can. I think volunteerism is such a really important part of how we can feel agency over things that feel entirely helpless. And then build your community. I think that’s incredibly important as well. Who are the people around you that you can really connect with and be in a relationship with? Do not go at this alone. You’re not alone.

Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.

Kendrick Sampson is an actor and activist from Houston known for on-screen roles in Vampire Diaries, How to Get Away with Murder, and, most recently, HBO’s Insecure. Offscreen, Kendrick‘s radical and unapologetic approach to activism led him to co-create BLD PWR (“build power”), a nonprofit initiative to build a community of freedom fighters within the entertainment industry to liberate oppressed and vulnerable communities.

Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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