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Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka Is on a Mission to Destigmatize Mental Health Through the Lens of Hair


Amid the era where beauty and mental health coincide, one name stands out as an advocate for Black individuals seeking holistic well-being: Afiya Mbilishaka, Ph.D. With her unique combination of expertise in both mental health and cosmetology, Dr. Mbilishaka has made significant contributions to the beauty industry through her innovative approach called PsychoHairapy.

From hosting transformative training sessions focused on educating hairstylists and enthusiasts on caring for textured hair to leaving a lasting impact on countless educational panels and classrooms, Dr. Mbilishaka's inspiring journey explores her entrance into both industries and how she seamlessly combines them to promote mental well-being. Join us as we speak with Dr. Mbilishaka on her inspiring trajectory, and discover the connection between self-care, hair care, and overall wellness.

Turning Passion Into Profession

Dr. Mbilishaka initially enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania with the intention of becoming a dentist. However, after completing the first semester of classes, she quickly realized that the science courses were not for her. In the following semester, she decided to take a psychology course, and it was love at first lesson.

"I loved the professor's entertaining style. It felt like attending a stand-up comedy show, and it made me pay attention. I also discovered how relevant psychology is to various aspects of life," says Dr. Mbilishaka. As a result, she continued enrolling in psychology-driven courses and soon noticed significant gaps in the field, particularly concerning its understanding of Black people.

"Whenever Black people were mentioned in psychology courses, it was usually in the context of deficits or a high prevalence of certain disorders, without a true appreciation for their culture," explains Dr. Mbilishaka. Determined to address this issue, she pursued a graduate degree in clinical psychology at Howard University, focusing on gaining a better understanding of Black mental health.

During her studies, Dr. Mbilishaka rediscovered a childhood hobby and transformed her dorm room into a makeshift hair salon, offering free hairstyling services to her fellow students. "I became known as the dorm hairstylist or floor stylist. Many people came to me, probably because I didn't charge, rather than for my skill set," she says, laughing.

She fondly recalls the therapeutic conversations she had with her classmates while they sat in her chair getting their hair done. These encounters brought her a sense of ease but also left her conflicted about which career path to pursue after graduation. "I realized that the sessions I had in my dorm room, where my classmates shared their day, plans, and stress, mirrored the therapy process," she explains.

A pivotal phone call with her aunt motivated Dr. Mbilishaka to merge her love for hair care and therapy into a future profession. "I remember talking to my aunt Brenda on the phone, asking whether I should pursue psychology or a career in hair after college. Her response was, 'Why can't you do both?'" recalls Dr. Mbilishaka. The significance of this conversation became clear when Dr. Mbilishaka completed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, established her private practice, and became a professor. It was at this point that she decided to take the leap and attend hair school to also obtain her cosmetology license.

Combining Mental Health and Hair Care

After receiving her degrees and cosmetology certification, Dr. Mbilishaka embarked on a new chapter by venturing into the "great resignation" of 2021. This movement witnessed a significant wave of employees across various industries opting to depart from their traditional jobs in pursuit of entrepreneurial endeavors or a healthier work-life balance. However, Dr. Mbilishaka identifies herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”.

Driven by her passion for both psychology and hair care, she took the exhilarating plunge from working as an assistant psychology professor into launching PsychoHairapy, a brand that has transcended commercial success to become a full-fledged movement. PsychoHairapy's vision extends far beyond superficial beauty. It aims to instill an understanding of the relationship between self-care, mental well-being, and hair health.

Dr. Mbilishaka initially experienced a bit of anxiety when transitioning from a structured nine-to-five routine to the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship. However, she soon discovered that the beauty industry was surprisingly receptive to discussions surrounding mental health, reinforcing her belief in the importance of her venture. “I've been pleasantly surprised by the industry's openness to address mental health topics," Dr. Mbilishaka reflects. "This affirmation has not only validated my idea but has also fueled my passion to empower individuals through PsychoHairapy."

The Impact of PsychoHairapy

"The definition of PsychoHairapy is the use of hair as an entry point into mental health care," says Dr. Mbilishaka. Since its launch, PsychoHairapy has not only garnered a loyal following but has also ignited meaningful conversations about self-care, mental health, and the crucial role of nutrition in maintaining healthy hair. The brand offers certification opportunities not only to stylists and barbers but also to beauty enthusiasts who may work outside the cosmetology industry.

This training equips them with the knowledge to create a therapeutic environment for clients while providing hair care services. With the brand's soaring popularity, Dr. Mbilishaka has become a catalyst for change, inspiring others to prioritize their well-being while embracing their unique beauty.

In February of this year, PsychoHairapy secured funding from beauty brand MAUI MOISTURE, which Dr. Mbilishaka plans to utilize to certify 100 individuals. "I'm incredibly excited that a brand like MAUI MOISTURE believes in the mission I have been pursuing for the past few decades," says Dr. Mbilishaka. As she continues to make strides in her venture, Dr. Mbilishaka remains dedicated to raising awareness and eliminating the stigma surrounding discussions about mental health within the beauty industry.

Being a Catalyst for Change

Combining her expertise in psychology with her knowledge of hair, Dr. Mbilishaka has revolutionized the approach hair care professionals take in their craft. Through her efforts, she has cultivated a new breed of practitioners—mental health allies who possess the necessary tools to support their clients holistically. By expanding their mindset and embracing a multidimensional approach, these professionals now have the ability to recognize and empathize with their clients' thoughts, emotions, and appearance.

According to Dr. Mbilishaka, "Being a psychologist who understands hair and a hair care professional who understands psychology enables us to provide the best possible care to our clients. It allows us to truly comprehend and empathize with their thoughts, emotions, and appearance. I appreciate the fact that we don't have to choose between these two domains but can excel in multiple areas and broaden our perspective to offer optimal support to those we serve.”

Inspired by Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka’s story and want to learn about more talented trailblazers? Discover more Beauty Through The Black Lens stories here.

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About the author
Chelsea Hall
Chelsea Hall
Chelsea is an NYC-based fashion and beauty writer with over 7 years experience. She has held roles at publications such as Harper's Bazaar, WWD, InStyle, and Marie Claire. Her writing has also appeared on and
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Article Last Updated June 27, 2023 12:00 AM