Disparities in mental healthcare are well-known in the U.S., with different populations having more or less access to care. Today’s guest, Wilma Mae Basta, is looking to resolve some of those disparities by targeting women of color with her website and pro bono counseling service.

In this episode she breaks down the need for culturally competent mental health services, explains barriers to treatment for women of color, and helps us understand that while diversity is important, it needs to be more than just a buzzword.

Wilma Mae Basta

Wilma Mae Basta, the founder and CEO of DRK Beauty, is originally from Philadelphia, a mother of two adult children and the daughter of a civil rights leader. In the early 90s, she built a career in film, TV, consumer tech PR in the U.K. where she resided for almost 30 years. More recently, she launched and built the successful luxury vintage fashion brand, The Gathering Goddess, which was known for its high-end collectibles and whose garments could often be seen on the red carpet.

Basta was inspired to create what DRK Beauty is today after her experience with severe depression, which resulted in hospitalization. After that period, she found it difficult to find the right kind of help that would support her as a woman of color. After several years of searching and testing out different modalities, she was able to build her own unique mental health and wellness journey, which ultimately helped to transform her life. DRK Beauty is a direct result of that experience and is now positioned to offer that to other women of color around the world. Basta relocated back to Brooklyn in 2017 to begin building and launching DRK Beauty.

Gabe Howard

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can grab a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. And calling into the show today we have Wilma Mae Basta. In the early 90s, Ms. Basta built a career in film, TV, consumer and consumer tech public relations in the UK, where she resided for almost 30 years. More recently, she launched and built the successful luxury vintage fashion brand, The Gathering Goddess, whose garments could often be seen on the red carpet. In 2017, she relocated back to Brooklyn, where she began building and launching DRK Beauty. Wilma, welcome to the show.

Wilma Mae Basta: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Gabe Howard: On your website, DRK Beauty is described as a digital community that supports and empowers women of color in all their diversity. Can you tell our listeners what led to you creating this community?

Wilma Mae Basta: Yes, well, originally, the concept for DRK Beauty was that oftentimes consumer brands see black women, women of color as a monolith because they don’t necessarily understand the myriad of cultures and experiences of who we are. What I wanted to do is to create this platform where you, as a woman of color, could find your group, your niche, but also brands could work with those particular groups to support them and empower them rather than just market to them. I really wanted to work with women of color because I feel that so many women of color are marginalized and don’t get to have the same experiences that brands espouse out into the world because brands don’t really understand. And in November 2019, we were doing a soft launch of DRK Beauty online with a blog and an Instagram site when a couple of months later COVID happened and we as a small team were figuring out how do we show up for our community right now? Because at the end of March 2020, no one was talking about the impact of COVID on black and brown communities in the media yet. So I decided that we needed to do something tangible, it was that the mental health issues were going to be huge in our community during COVID because of all of the impact that this was having.

Gabe Howard: And if I’m not mistaken, you have a personal stake in this. You have had your own struggles with mental illness, correct?

Wilma Mae Basta: I had a mental health breakdown about 11 years ago and was hospitalized for six weeks. So mental health became very important for me and also destigmatizing mental health issues, mental illnesses that I championed in my life, especially on my path to healing. And that’s one of the things that I share with folks that look at the last 10 years of my life and say, well, gosh, you were really in a dark place. How did you get through that? And I said it’s not just one thing, but here are some of the tools that I used for myself. Therapy was one of them. And life alignment is another tool that I use and meditation and I built. I like because there was nothing out there for me to go to. There was no place I could go to as a black woman that understood my journey, that could say, OK, you might want to try these things. Here’s a safe space for you to come to discover and explore, that didn’t exist.

Gabe Howard: And then this online community, the online community that you created evolved into a pro bono therapy program, how did that come about?

Wilma Mae Basta: So for me, I thought, well, we need to do something in the mental health space to help and support our community in the short term. And I think we should give away free therapy. And my team were like, how do we do that? I said, I have no idea. I said, well, let’s get on the phone with some clinicians and start speaking. We started speaking to therapists and they started telling us that they a lot of them actually give away free therapy about 20 hours a year, pro bono.

Wilma Mae Basta: And the light bulb switched on. And I said, would you be willing to give me half of those hours? And then the first therapist said, yes. And I said, can you tell 10 of your therapist friends? And they did. And then we had another few therapists say, I’ll give you 10 hours, I’ll give you 10 hours. All of a sudden we had a few hundred hours of therapy and I said, well, we need to separate this out from the main business. And we said, let’s call it DRK Beauty Healing. Let’s build a directory onto our existing blog, a directory of clinicians across America who have donated hours to this initiative. Then this could work right? By May the 15th of 2020, we launched DRK Beauty Healing. And it was the beginning of our pivot into mental health and wellness. Then George Floyd was murdered and we started seeing an uptick in people using the service. And we also saw an uptick in more clinicians donating hours to the initiative. By the end of June, we had raised over a thousand hours. By the end of July, we had over two thousand hours, therapy hours, licensed clinicians across America. By the end of the year, we realized that we needed to pivot the for profit side of the business, which had never really launched properly into mental health and wellness. We’re now a platform for women of color to help support them in their mental health and wellness journey.

Gabe Howard: Your website targets specifically women of color. Why did you decide to go that route instead of just a website that targets everybody?

Wilma Mae Basta: That’s a great question. It’s a multilayered question, there’s several answers. One is because there are a lot of resources out there for dealing with your mental health, which are aimed at everyone. It didn’t make sense for us to be another player in the field for everyone. Also, this is a business that means something to me. I’m a woman of color. My family, my children are mixed race. Many of my friends are of different nationalities and have experienced some degree of being marginalized at some point in their life. Number two, it is very common in communities of color that acknowledging and owning your mental health journey or mental illnesses is stigmatized and this goes back generations. We don’t often deal with our mental health. There is a whole trope around the strong black woman. We are brought up to be these warriors, to be these resilient. And there’s an expectation in society that black women in particular are meant to be strong. We can take anything, we can raise the family and deal with poverty and deal with all the racism that we experience and still expect to be functioning. That stigma exists. You don’t have the same stigma in other communities. You don’t have the same stigma in white communities.

Wilma Mae Basta: We also have the issue of cultural competency. Some also refer to it as cultural relevancy. I believe the statistic is that only 4% of licensed psychologists in America are black. It is common for people to want to connect to someone who understands their generational experience or cultural experience, someone that looks like me. And you can’t always find that in other services. And also, I’m a woman and I know the particular journey and burdens and responsibilities that women have to carry. Specifically women of color, because I understand and know the challenges that we face no matter where we are on the socioeconomic spectrum. I want to do something that really supports women of color. And this through DRK Beauty, I believe that we’re doing that.

Gabe Howard: I believe there’s two points here that are worth mentioning. The first one is in mental healthcare and addiction and mental illness and recovery. In general, we have this phrase. Meet people where they are. And it sounds like you understand where your community is and you’re providing the services to meet them where they are. The second point is, and I have a little analogy. When I first got started, I ordered shirts that had my little logo on it. You know, my mom was so proud. Right. But I ordered unisex shirts because I wanted to be inclusive. And there were great shirts available for everybody years later, when I had more resources, more money, etc., I decided, Hey, now it’s time to get men’s shirts and women’s shirts. And when the men’s shirts came in, they were literally the unisex shirts. The only difference is the label said men versus unisex. Literally exactly the same, which means the unisex shirt was modeled off of a man. Is it a fair statement to say that perhaps many of the mental health websites, treatments, and especially things in the pro bono space say they’re for everybody, but they’ve been modeled after the white community and even maybe the white middle class community? So much like my unisex shirt, while they say they’re for everybody, they were actually modeled with one particular idea in mind. Maybe not even intentionally. Is that what you found?

Wilma Mae Basta: Yeah, so there’s a lot of talk around decolonizing therapy. I should preface this with the fact that I am a mental health advocate and not a professional, so I can’t always speak specifically to all of the structural problems within the mental health space. But what I do know and have been speaking to many of the clinicians in our community is that there are folks who really are focused on dismantling the colonized therapy, which is designed for white folks, not for people of color. There are people better than me that can speak to that. We’re trying to, as DRK Beauty, find the folks who understand that journey. And it’s not this one size fits all approach, by the way. And I’m really glad you brought up this question, because many of the other services that are out there that say they’re for all people and they also say, look, we’ve got clinicians of color on our site. Just because that person is a clinician of color doesn’t mean that they’re working from a decolonized therapeutic approach. And this is where I think this disconnect that I saw earlier with the first iteration of DRK Beauty, wanting to work with brands, a lot of brands would say, look, we have a black model in our ad campaign. Look, we have a light-skinned model. Look, we have a dark-skinned model. Look, we have a Latina model.

Wilma Mae Basta: Look, we have a plus sized model. Look, we have a transgender model. We’re diverse. No, you’re not really. You just have models in your campaign. Doesn’t indicate that you understand what’s going on in these communities with these people.

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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Wilma Mae Basta, founder of the DRK Beauty community. I don’t think that all middle aged white males understand what my life is like simply because they are also a middle aged white male. And I think anybody hearing that would be like. Of course not. I mean, that’s ridiculous. Why would anybody think that? But we do see this often in other areas. Oh, we understand the experience because we have a person of color on staff or we have a member of the LGBTQ+ community on staff. In the light most favorable, that’s one. But unfortunately, we often see that they don’t have space to move. They are on staff, but they’re not in the position where they can make changes. They’re not in management. Right? They’re following the same set of procedures as everybody, which generally produces the same outcomes. Is that sort of what you mean by we’re lacking diversity, that just because somebody is a member of a specific community, if they’re doing the same things as all the other clinicians, they’re probably going to get the same results as all of the other clinicians.

Wilma Mae Basta: Yeah, the word diversity is overused, just like the word authentic and inclusion. These are the buzzwords of the moment. Society tends to be herd-like anyway, right? Somebody shouts loud enough and they get traction with what they’re shouting about. Everyone else tends to think, oh, we better follow on to that bandwagon. And diversity and inclusion has been like there’s a bandwagon that makes companies that are white led feel safe navigating the space, but it’s messy. Your mental health is messy. Your journey to uncover your true self is messy. You got to roll your sleeves up and you’ve got to get dirty in order to actually do the real work. And it’s not a perfect journey. But there’s so much fear in the backlash that you’ll get if you get it wrong that they find the safest ways. And doing a directory of therapists is, look what we’re doing, we’re giving the help. But really for me, for what we’re doing with DRK Beauty, giving away free therapy was just one way that we could show up in the world to help our community at a time when there was a lot of fear and confusion. But we immediately and have been working in the background to figure out how do we support people? How do we support women of color to uncover their true selves and to move that forward? Then we as a team, we’re really collaborative and we talk to people, we’re talking to women, we’re talking to clinicians, we’re talking to practitioners, healing practitioners every day of the week because we need to learn and understand and we need to test and iterate and pull back. There’s a rawness to all of what we’re doing here. We’re dealing with humans. And I have a very different view of how we can be helpful in this space. And it doesn’t need to look like anything else. And I think that we just have to always keep centering our human experience through what we do.

Gabe Howard: Because it shows what a complicated issue this is and it also speaks to why you launched DRK Beauty, because you have a different perspective than other people. As a woman of color, you saw a need to help other women of color. And the fact that there’s any criticism and I read the Internet, there’s criticism all the time when people feel that they are left out. The fact that there’s any criticism is nonsense. It’s just utter nonsense. You saw a need and you filled it.

Wilma Mae Basta: Yeah, the thing about mental health, if you are having a mental health crisis or you are in the midst of a breakdown or you are wracked with anxiety or your depression is going downhill, it is really difficult to think your way out of a paper bag. And take it from someone who knows, you might be a high flying CEO and can’t think of what the first step is to finding that care that you need. Because it happened to me and on paper, my life looked like everything was great and tickety-boo. And yet I couldn’t. I didn’t know what was going on with me. I ended up checking into a Holiday Inn with my kids in a basket of tears because I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t get out of bed. I literally could not physically move out of bed. The only thing I could do was call one of my closest friends and he was able to go and talk to the therapist I just started seeing, explain the situation, got my children off to their grandparents, and the therapist said to him, get her to the Capio. He called me and says, You’re supposed to go to the Capio.

Wilma Mae Basta: I’m like, what’s the Capio? He says, I don’t know. But here’s the address. It’s the Capitol Nightingale Hospital in London. It’s a psychiatric hospital. And I’ve been checked in and the nurse comes in and he says, Do you feel safe? And I thought, that sounds like a little bit of a silly question because I’m in what looks like another Holiday Inn room. And of course, I’m safe. I’m in a room. And then it dawned on me like a ton of bricks had dropped on me, that I had been so emotionally unsafe in my life at that point. And I didn’t even realize it. That was the moment where I was like, wow. And then I was diagnosed with severe depression and the signs were all there. But I didn’t know anything about mental health. I even went to the doctors. I even had a suicide attempt. And I went to the hospital and they were like, we’re going to have a psych person look at you and that person went, Oh, you might just be having marital problems. Just give it a few months and see how you go.

Gabe Howard: Just completely ignored all of the symptoms, the scale, and just decided, oh, it’s probably your marriage go on your way just that quickly.

Wilma Mae Basta: Yes, yes, that’s why when we say we’re giving away free therapy and I have had women, high flying women, who were like, can I use it? I’m like, yes, you can, because you need to get over the hump so that you can at least start to get your brain back on track. So you could start to think about the next steps in your healing journey and to navigate the health care system, especially in this country, in America. You don’t even have the mental capacity to be able to do that. This is just let’s get you balanced with some free therapy and then you can figure out next steps.

Gabe Howard: Where is DRK Beauty now and where is it heading?

Wilma Mae Basta: So we are a small team, like I said, we’re self-funded. Fundraising for something like what we’re doing isn’t straightforward and the fundraising landscape isn’t really designed to support founders of color historically. So what we’ve decided to do is to focus on building organically and listening and understanding the folks in our community and figuring out what can we do. For example, The Inner Tribe series that we’ve rolled out, and it’s a small cohort of 10 women that will meet biweekly virtually, and they’ll be exploring themes from depression to anxiety to relationships with a licensed clinician. And it will last for three months. So you build this kind of sister circle in a really safe space. And these are the things that we can’t just roll out just because we have the idea. We need to see how these work. We need to talk to folks. We need to adjust and change, iterate and solve for our community first and foremost, rather than just an investor. We don’t fit into the box for investors. Even though I believe that this will be a business that will be not only global but will be profitable. We are spending the time embracing, supporting and holding space for black women and women of color and building it from that perspective. We also have the nonprofit side, which is DRK Beauty Healing. We’re fundraising on that side as well so that we can continue to give away free therapy through our clinicians. And we’re working with Psych Central, which we’re so excited about. And these are the things that really matter for our community.

Gabe Howard: How can you get access to free therapy through DRK Beauty Healing and how can you donate to DRK Beauty Healing?

Wilma Mae Basta: Well, thank you for asking. So right now, as it exists, when we built DRK Beauty Healing, we built it on the back of our blog. So it’s a very sort of simple directory. When you go into ThisIsDRKBeauty.com, you’ll see a prompt for DRK Beauty Healing. You click on that and that will take you to the DRK Beauty Healing page, where you’ll find several things. You’ll be able to search by your state in the US, we’re US only at the moment. Find your state and you’ll see clinicians in your state that currently have hours left. It will give you who they are, what their areas of expertise, their license. We make sure that everybody in our directory is licensed and it gives you their contact details and then you can just write them an email saying, I’ve come through DRK Beauty. I’d like to talk to you about some free therapy sessions. We leave it to the clinician to decide to accept you or not, or they recommend you to someone else and they may decide to allocate their ten hours to you or allocate five hours. A minimum of five hours.

Wilma Mae Basta: Some clinicians donate more hours. But ideally, what we will be doing when we fundraise is that we want to keep these amazing clinicians in our network and we’ve been subsidizing emergency situations when someone’s gone through deep trauma and the therapists in their state have run out of hours. And in terms of our fundraising, there is two options for your everyday person wants to donate anything from ten dollars to five hundred dollars to a thousand dollars. We do have a GoFundMe page and if you just google DRK Beauty Healing and GoFundMe, you’ll find it. For larger donations, we also have a fiscal sponsor that we work with and we are registered as a 501(c)(3).

Gabe Howard: Well, we at Psych Central love working with you. We’re very glad for this partnership. Thank you so much for setting it up. And thank you so much for all that you do. Where can folks find you on the Internet?

Wilma Mae Basta: First of all, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so deeply appreciative of having the space to talk about what we do and thank you for inviting me on here. So we have a big presence on Instagram, you can find us @ThisIsDRKBeauty, @ThisIsDRKBeauty. And I also have my personal page, which people can come on and have a look at. It’s sometimes just silly things or fun things. But it’s usually happy things, I don’t really get into anything too heavy there. But it’s @WilmaDRKBeauty. We also have a small but growing Facebook group. You can just google this is DRK Beauty Facebook group and you’ll find us there and join us there. We’re going to be building that out as well.

Gabe Howard: I also understand that just recently you got on Clubhouse?

Wilma Mae Basta: Yes, I’ve been on Clubhouse since before it blew up, I’ve been on since last August, but we recently launched our own DRK Beauty Club on Clubhouse where we host rooms and sessions, which have been really powerful. I encourage folks that are interested in what we’re doing to also follow us on Clubhouse. Type in DRK Beauty, and you’ll find us. And we hope you join some of the interesting and empowering conversations that we’re having on there.

Gabe Howard: Wilma, thank you so much for being here and a huge thank you to all of our listeners as well. Wherever you downloaded the podcast, follow or subscribe to the show, it’s absolutely free. Also, review the show, tell other people why you listen so that they can listen too. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as a nationally recognized public speaker. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have me at your next event? You can grab a signed copy of my book or learn more about me just by visiting gabehoward.com. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

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