I never saw myself as someone who would need therapy or self-help tools. For as long as I can remember, I’ve embodied the notion of the “strong Black woman.” I’m a self-starter with a successful career and two lovely children.
I always figured I could work through whatever came my way on my own — I turned out to be wrong.
Late in 2004, I met the love of my life, my now husband. We were both coming out of marriages at the time, with kids on each side. So, I knew this wasn’t going to be straightforward. But I wasn’t prepared for just how difficult it would be.
We had moved to a rural part of England, and the countryside was isolating. Between that, leaving my friends behind in London, and merging with my husband’s family who had just been through a painful divorce, I found it difficult to cope. I gradually descended into a severe depression.
Had I known anything about mental health at the time, I would have caught the signs: anxiety, uncontrollable emotions, hopelessness. I found I wanted to be alone most of the time, I drank more and more alcohol, I started having panic attacks, and many mornings, it felt like it took a Herculean effort to get out of bed.
Along with loss of hope and a feeling of being trapped, I had lost my sense of joy in things I’d previously loved doing, such as cooking, reading, and listening to music.
I even attempted suicide one morning — which shocked me, as I hadn’t previously had any suicidal ideations. It was as if my brain abruptly flipped from one moment to the next, and I found myself huddled on the floor of my laundry room in tears swallowing one Tylenol after another.
Fortunately, my husband found me and took me to the hospital.
I was seen by a mental health official who, surprisingly, didn’t diagnose me with depression. He recommended I see a general practitioner, who saw my suicide attempt as merely a result of marital problems. His advice was to give it a few months and see how I got on.
I was baffled by this. It occurred to me later that this doctor — who was in a rural part of England where there are few, if any, Black people — had no cultural competency nor a deep understanding of depression.
So, I went about my life trying to minimize drama and keep the pain to myself. But it didn’t go away.
My emotions shifted between deep sadness and anger. I struggled just to keep my eyes open at times. Even talking, actually moving my mouth to utter words, often felt like too much. It was all overwhelming, and I had no idea what to do about it.
I finally started to see a therapist on a friend’s recommendation, but by that point, the depression was in full swing. After hitting another emotional rock bottom a few weeks later, the only solution I could think of was to ask for a separation from my husband.
I checked into a hotel with my kids and cried the entire night. In the morning, I found I couldn’t physically move to get out of the bed, and this scared me. I called a friend who, after reaching out to my therapist for help, got me to the Capio Nightingale Hospital in central London — a psychiatric hospital.
In a million years, I wouldn’t have imagined myself in a place like that. “Strong Black women” — at least not this one — didn’t end up in psychiatric hospitals.
I had moved to London without thinking twice, built a successful career in public relations, traveled the world, and ostensibly had a life others dreamed of. But there I was, sitting on the side of the bed while the nurse checked me in, wondering how it had come to this.
The nurse then asked me a question that at first I thought was odd: Did I feel safe? I was in a clean, sterile room that looked like it belonged in a Holiday Inn. Of course I felt safe!
But then it dawned on me how safe I actually did feel, and I understood what she was asking. These people were here for the sole purpose of helping me and caring for me. That was when the penny dropped.
My life had become this consistently emotionally unstable world that I could no longer navigate or tolerate. In retrospect, I believe that many of the family dynamics I experienced when I first married my husband triggered trauma from my childhood and unhealthy family dynamics I hadn’t yet addressed.
But at that moment, in the hospital, I felt as if I could fall back and someone would be there to catch me. It was an overwhelming feeling. In fact, I don’t think I had ever felt that supported in my entire life. I would go on to spend most of the next 6 weeks at the Capio.
When I finally emerged, I knew my healing journey was not yet complete, but that I had enough newfound strength to continue it.
While in the hospital, I took part in group and one-on-one therapy sessions and learned more about cognitive behavioral therapy, which was helpful in getting me to change my mindset and conduct.
Still, I was aware that I needed more than just therapy, and I knew I didn’t want to be on antidepressants in the long term.
Most of the clinicians at the hospital, as helpful as they were, didn’t understand my journey as a Black woman. There were no tools, sites, or resources aimed at women of color at that time. I had to craft my own expedition.
I spent the next 2 years reading and experimenting with different modalities, traditions, teachers, and philosophies. Eventually, I pieced together a host of things that worked for me, and my custom mental health toolkit now includes elements of Buddhism, a powerful healing practice called Life Alignment, Ayurvedic medicine, and more.
In 2017, 7 years after I first checked into the Capio, our children now adults, I moved with my husband to New York City. (He splits his time between New York and London.)
Ready to move on from a career in vintage fashion, I started a new business called DRK Beauty, which was about celebrating and supporting Black women and their empowerment.
The original concept was to create a content platform for those who identify as women of color, and to work with consumer brands who wanted to support our diverse community through relevant and targeted initiatives rather than simply market to us as a monolith.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, we had only just soft-launched DRK Beauty a few months before. Consumer brands were the last thing on people’s minds at that point, and I wasn’t sure what this would mean for our future.
Then, one morning in late March 2020, I had a revelation that came as a result of my own mental health experiences.
I realized that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Brown communities was going to spark huge mental health issues. (This was before the media reported on this.)
And given the difficulty people of color have getting proper care due to accessibility, affordability, and cultural stigma, I thought DRK Beauty should give away free therapy.
We called the initiative DRK Beauty Healing (DBH) and connected with licensed clinicians from all over the country, asking if they would donate therapy hours to this project. The majority agreed.
Surprised and encouraged by the response, we asked our developers to build a simple directory on our website so people could easily access help.
Six weeks later, on May 15, 2020, we launched with a few hundred hours of therapy available from the clinicians featured in our directory, making it so women of color in the United States could easily access a minimum of 5 hours of free therapy, no strings attached.
After George Floyd was murdered, even more clinicians reached out to us to donate hours. By July, we had over 2,000 hours of free therapy and more than 120 licensed clinicians in our network, covering 60 percent of America.
When I finally had some time to peel back and think about the future of DBH, it was clear from its success that we needed to continue it — but what was to become of our original business, DRK Beauty?
Feeling like there was still no central place for women of color to find the therapists, wellness teachers, healers, and practitioners we needed, I wanted to change that.
I decided to combine the best of both platforms — DRK Beauty’s wellness content with DBH’s free therapy — and expand on it to include a network of wellness professionals, making it a one-stop shop for women of color to get their mental health needs met.
Now that we’re full speed ahead with our revised mission, we’re expanding in other ways, too.
We’re excited to be teaming up with mental health website Psych Central, which will feature compelling content from the clinicians in our network over the coming months. Specifically, the stories will shed light on the unique factors and experiences that impact women of color.
In addition, we will be co-moderating several rooms together on Clubhouse during Mental Health Awareness Month in May with special guests and compelling talks on Instagram Live, on topics like identifying depression, managing anxiety, and more.
Just a year and a half ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would be in a position to use my own mental health journey to make an impact on other people’s lives — but I’m so grateful that this unique confluence of circumstances has brought me here.
I feel that DRK Beauty found me and revealed my true purpose. Helping women of color will always be our primary mission, and I can’t wait to continue finding new, innovative ways to do it.
Wilma Mae Basta, originally from Philadelphia, is the mother of two adult children and the daughter of a civil rights leader. She worked in film, TV, PR, and luxury vintage fashion before creating DRK Beauty Healing.