The past two years have presented plenty of mental health challenges for people worldwide. For Black Americans in particular, rates of anxiety and depression increased after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, according to a joint survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Exposure to racism or self-perceived experiences with racism increase the likelihood that a person will develop clinical depression, according to research, yet Black Americans are less likely to seek help — and experience less-successful outcomes when seeking counseling services — than white Americans, other research shows.

Barbara Ford Shabazz, PsyD, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, is painfully familiar with the various mental health issues that many members of the Black community face. A clinical psychologist as well as a psychology professor, she has helped her clients and students in the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia for more than 20 years with numerous challenges, including what comes with being Black in white America.

Currently focusing on her work as a personal and executive coach through her company Intentional Activities, Dr. Shabazz marries her clinical experience with positive psychology and coaching to help people live and grow with intention. Her strength-based transformational services have been especially empowering to the Black community over the past two years as they process their experiences with trauma, and her efforts to advocate for mental health access and awareness for members of the Black community have been instrumental in effecting change.

Shabazz talks about her journey as a Black woman clinical psychologist, her work with Intentional Activities, and the footprint she hopes to leave in destigmatizing mental illness and making mental health treatment more accessible to the Black community.

Everyday Health: When did you first decide that you wanted to help others?

Barbara Shabazz: I actually first made the decision when I was in the first grade. When I tell people that, they typically laugh. But I remember winning a little notepad box from selling magazines, and I would ask my friends to send me notes and put them in my notepad box on my desk. The notes would say things like, “Do you think I should ask Becky to be my girlfriend?” That was my first experience being a keeper of secrets or other people’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. Believe it or not, it was at that point that I knew that I wanted to become a person who helped others. When I was 8, I wanted to be a lawyer; I thought I would help others in that way. But when I was in high school, I became drawn to psychology classes, which ultimately solidified my career path.

EH: What has been your focus area as a psychologist?

BS: When I first started out, I saw a wide range of ages, from children to people who were considered senior citizens. Then I began doing community mental health and saw a cross-section of different populations. So, I started my career more as a general provider and saw clients for about seven years before also beginning to teach at a college level. I taught face-to-face and online for almost 20 years, teaching multiple psychology courses. My most recent role [was] as a psychology program director.

Later, my focus began to narrow to a coaching approach when I began Intentional Activities.

EH: When did you establish Intentional Activities?

BS: I first got my business license in August 2015 but didn’t truly do anything with Intentional Activities until I was laid off as an adjunct professor twice in one year. I went to a coaching seminar certification program in 2017, and from there, everything moved forward. That’s when I got really serious about Intentional Activities.

EH: It sounds like getting laid off ultimately motivated you to get more serious about starting your coaching business.

BS: It did. In 2014 and 2015, colleges and universities were experiencing declines in student enrollment, which was causing many of them to lay off their adjunct and affiliate faculty. So, I was laid off, and then I went to another university, and the same thing happened at that university. At that point, I saw my getting laid off twice back to back as a sign and thought to myself, “You know, you can bet on yourself.”

EH: What was your goal in opening Intentional Activities?

BS: I wanted to have a space where I could see people who were interested in taking action. I did not want to sit in a [therapeutic environment] with people like I had done before. I wanted to work with clients who were motivated to use their inherent strengths and the tools they were equipped with to live a more action-oriented and authentic life. To live their truth intentionally. That was my motivation for starting and creating the space of Intentional Activities.

That said, another goal was to help increase accessibility in services. I am a believer in pro bono services. … I also have specials and different pricing options that allow clients to pay in installments to help with accessibility.

EH: Thank you for making that much-needed and relevant distinction: Intentional Activities is a private coaching practice and does not have a therapeutic focus like your previous private practice. Can you speak more about who you feel can best benefit from coaching versus a therapeutic counseling setting?

BS: People ask me that question often. I think that I am in a unique position to do the work I do because of my background in clinical psychology. I also work with clients who have a therapist, and they see me simultaneously. But a coaching approach is more appropriate for people who need a little help gaining clarity about creating or framing a vision for their lives, eliminating obstacles to their success, accelerating the pace of their personal growth, and helping them achieve those results to help them live their best lives professionally and personally.

Whereas therapy is more focused on the past and digging into the root of what is going on with people and what has gotten them to the point where they are now, coaching references the past, but only to access information that we might need to create a plan to move forward. We do not stay in the space of healing from the past. So, I would suggest it for a person who wants to focus on relationships, finances, spiritual life, work-life, work-life balance, business, or physical health. But I always caution clients that I will definitely refer them if I see that they need to look at something a little deeper with a therapist or a psychiatrist.

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