Where Mental Health and Beauty Collide: How the Black Beauty & Wellness Foundation is Transforming the Beautyshop Experience

Where Mental Health and Beauty Collide: How the Black Beauty & Wellness Foundation is Transforming the Beautyshop Experience
Photography by Kai Byrd @kaibyrd_

It is no secret that the Black hair care industry has commanded the nation’s attention. Raking in several billion dollars over in the last few years, Black women have proven time and time again that self-care is a priority they are all too willing to invest in. While $127 million was spent on grooming aids and $465 million on skincare as recently as 2017, it does not compare to what hair care raked in when $2.51 billion dollars was spent on hair care alone in 2018!

Over the years, much of that has been spent in local hair salons where Black beauticians have had the critical task of not only perfecting the latest hairstyles for their clients, but also carefully curating a safe haven for Black women to share their successes, vent their frustrations, and ultimately, find a release.

For Margo Wade LaDrew, Black Beauty & Wellness Foundation founder, she saw a unique opportunity to take these venting sessions to the next level. By providing specialized mental health training and advocacy programs to Black stylists, Wade LaDrew— a former model and executive at Johnson Publishing Company—is on a mission to transform how the Black beauty salon experience can better support Black women, one hairstyle at a time.

Established to empower African American women with the knowledge to choose healthier lifestyles, the Black Beauty & Wellness Foundation is amplifying the unique role beauty shops play in Black culture—as trusted places where women exchange information and set cultural norms, including those related to health behaviors. “My ultimate goal is to turn beauty shops into resource centers and be able to offer programs for women for their mind, body, and soul. I want to connect them to the resources in their community,” shared Wade LaDrew. “We can train shop owners and stylists to become advocates so that they can be able to provide resources to their community because they actually have a space, a storefront. People listen to their stylists.”

“We now have the opportunity to help stylists build [their] capacity
and to be able to become champions for their own communities!”

“We have partnered with the California Black Women's Health Project and Charles Drew University where collaboratively we have developed a [local] program called Mindful Beauty where we are training stylists to learn the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety,” raved Wade LaDrew. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the Mindful Beauty pilot program churned out 12 new mental health trained stylists from 10 local salons in 2020.

Energized by this promising rollout, Wade LaDrew is looking forward to launching the program statewide and beyond in 2021 to be nationally recognized as Stylists Mentally Mobilized. “Our goal is to expand this and train more stylists in California and then take it regionally. We would love by the end of the year to have up to 100 stylists trained in California!”

With an official launch event for Stylists Mentally Mobilized planned for May 2021 and the support of people like actress Sheryl Lee Ralph who has served as an ambassador for her BeautyShop initiatives over the past three years, Wade LaDrew is holding nothing back. In addition, she is also recruiting an army of stylists and barbers to help spread the word nationally that mental health for Black women is essential. “We now have the opportunity to help stylists build [their] capacity and to be able to become champions for their own communities!”

Wade LaDrew understands how challenging it can be for women to reach out and ask for help, which is why it's critical that stylists know which signs to look for when a troubled woman sits in their chair. “I'm listening to buzzwords, you know, and you have to ask questions for them to be open to tell you if they want help, or to just listen.” According to Johns Hopkins, “Women are at least twice as likely to experience an episode of major depression as men…and, compared to their Caucasian counterparts, African American women are only half as likely to seek help.”

Wade LaDrew was barely 7 years old when she first realized her own mother, a hairstylist herself, was facing a severe mental health crisis. “A lot of women had babies young back then. They were getting married at 17 and then having three or four babies back-to-back. I really feel like it was postpartum depression,” says Wade LaDrew. After several years of instability, including multiple hospital stays due to mental health issues, her mother was diagnosed with a severe case of schizophrenia.
As one of America's most marginalized demographics due to being both women and Black, the unique challenges Black women face have come at a high cost. “Being that Black women are the ones who are leading everything now politically, we create more jobs as we're entrepreneurs, we're mothers, and heads of households,” Wade LaDrew explains. “So, you're taking care of everybody and everything and juggling so much that we forget to take care of our mental, physical and emotional state spiritually because we feel like a lot of times we can't. And I think it's subconscious [that we feel] we don't deserve.”

Wade LaDrew isn’t lying. Despite being more educated and holding more college degrees than any other demographic, Black women only earn $0.62 for every dollar White men take home. When it comes to being business owners, they are the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs in America while also carrying the heavy burden of running their households and businesses. When it comes to reproductive and maternal health, Black women face disproportionate illness and death—they are 3x as likely to suffer from fibroids and die from childbirth than White women. Finally, it has been documented that due to Black women’s leadership in several local high-stakes elections, a Democratic candidate was able to win the 2020 Presidential election, yet they have minimal representation in Congress. Out of 435 members of the House of Representatives, a mere 24 are Black women. The Senate numbers are even worse—there are none now that Kamala Harris serves as the newly elected Vice President.

For Wade LaDrew, much of her progress with the Black Beauty & Wellness Foundation feels like a full-circle moment, as she’s spent the last few decades working with some of the largest Black beauty brands in the nation. To put it bluntly, she is no novice to the beauty industry.

She fondly remembers her start, which began with an interview with thee Mr. Johnson, the CEO and publishing magnate of Johnson Publishing Company, who lamented, “Why should I hire you? You’re like a little gypsy?” Wade LaDrew, quick and matter-of-factly, responded, “Well, Mr. Johnson, I’m 25. I know what I want to do.” And that she did. Within a few short years, she had risen through the ranks to become an executive who was reporting to the CEO himself.

In the years since, Wade LaDrew has seen herself transition between various roles at other beauty brands, including Dark & Lovely, Bronner Brothers, Worlds of Curls, Let’s Jam, and Posner’s Cosmetics. However, with each additional step, the pressure increased until one day, she felt her mental health was at stake. It was at that moment she realized she needed to get help. “By going to the psychiatrists, talking, and realizing that just because I cried, I wasn’t weak, I learned it was a sign of strength to be able to release it and to talk about it,” Wade LaDrew reflected. “And so now I talk to women about things—I don’t hide. It has really helped me come out of my shell and let people know that they’re not alone.” She continued. “Because we’re focused so much on everybody else, we forget to take care of ourselves. We make 85% of the household decisions when it comes to everything we purchase, to the health, to everything! And so, I said, women are the CEOs of the family. That’s why I started this organization.”

Currently, the salon and barbershop training that Stylists Mentally Mobilized offers is extensive and customized. Salon screenings and education are the primary offerings, where Wade LaDrew and her team execute health screenings as well as circulate health educational materials and information on preventative options for a healthier lifestyle directly inside salons and barbershops. In addition, stylists and barbers are also empowered with the necessary resources and tools to recommend follow-up appointments and access to care. There is also a Beauty-N-Motion 5K to build awareness and fundraise as well as a “My Beauty Bag” program that provides a shining light of self-esteem, comfort, and hope to women who are dealing with a chronic illness domestic violence or living in shelters. Finally, there is also a resource center component that helps transform salons and barbershops into hybrid local community health resource centers.

Reflecting on the progress she has made throughout the years that has led her to where she is today brings tears to Wade LaDrew’s eyes. “We have so much on us anyway; it’s like a foot is always on your neck. You have to have that unit of support to survive because sometimes we don’t have the finances to even go to the next step. If you have someone there that can give you that support and is cheering you on, yes, you can do it, and you can figure it out.” By bringing resources to her community, providing health screenings to Black women, and creating this mental health network, Wade LaDrew is undoubtedly making an impact that will last generations to come.