Anika Noni Rose on the power of taking ‘mental health walks:’ ‘Sitting in the gunk of it all is never healthy’

·10 min read
'The Princess and the Frog' star is now empowering Black women to tell their own stories in season 3's 'Being Seen' (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
"The Princess and the Frog" star is empowering Black women to tell their own stories in season 3 of her podcast, "Being Seen." (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose has come a long way since voicing the first Black Disney princess in The Princess and the Frog in 2009. Following a string of memorable roles, including in Dreamgirls, For Colored Girls, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Netflix's Maid, the multi-hyphenated artist is now shining a light on the injustices Black women face in health care — particularly those living with HIV. 

In Being Seen, a podcast produced by Harley & Co. and created in partnership with ViiV Healthcare, now in its third season, Rose interviews thought leaders like Taraji P. Henson, Ledisi, Dominique Jackson and Roxane Gay in pursuit of capturing the essence and power of the Black female experience in America. Here, Rose explains how she's found her voice in her artistry, her hopes for Black woman storytellers and why empowering more women of color in all industries should be a top priority. 

It's been quite the year, and taking care of our mental health has never been more important. Do you have a self-care routine?

Sometimes my self-care routine is hiding [laughs]. But it's true! I'm a big walker. I walked through COVID, through the quarantine. I did what I affectionately named “mental health walks.” I wasn't sleeping. Who was? If you were, God bless you. Let me know your secret. I would wake up really early, around five o'clock in the morning. I could lay there and be stressed out and think about all the things I could not do anything about in that moment, or things that I wanted to be the case, or things that I was tired of, or things that I didn't like about myself and wanted to change, which I did a lot of thinking about during the quarantine because that's the time to do it. But I feel like if we weren't being introspective in that time, what does it take? So instead of just laying there, having circular thoughts and getting hungry, I got up and walked.

I would hit my 10,000 step mark before I got back to the house. That's the kind of walking I did. And sometimes, I cried. Sometimes I listened to music. Sometimes I would call people in different time zones because it was a good time to talk to them. Sometimes I just focused on walking, and completing the walk. And that was a goal. Even when things were really bad in my spirit or in my heart, by the time I got home, something was shaken loose. And that's what I needed it to be, because sitting in the gunk of it all is never healthy. I also have a therapist, so you know, when the mental health walk is not enough, I talk to somebody who is not a friend.

What would you say the benefits of talking to a therapist over a friend are for you?

Just someone who doesn't have any skin in the game, someone who can be objective and who's trained to be helpful in situations where you feel like you're gonna pull your hair out and perhaps run down the street naked. Quarantine was the wildest thing ever. Quarantine on top of George Floyd was more wild than you could even imagine, with people dying around you every day. It was beyond. We have to find the things that allow us to process that without causing ourselves further harm.

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Anika Noni Rose is using her platform to raise the alarm about injustices Black women face in the health care system. (Credit: Erik Carter)

What sort of personal discoveries came out of your long walks?

I now work much harder at being in touch with people. I don't like that I'm not as in touch with people as I want to be, and I don't want anyone to think that it's because I'm not thinking about them … I doubled down on wanting to be my best self in my personal and professional life. And that changes daily, you know, but wanting to make sure that I'm always putting my best self forward when I step into a work situation or when I am in a life situation that may not be perfect. I'm finding a way to find my best self. Of course, that doesn't mean I won't cuss!

In Being Seen, currently streaming on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, you really allowed yourself to be vulnerable in sharing these stories. What attracted you to the project?

Darnell Moore [host of seasons 1 and 2] is somebody I hold in great esteem. I really liked what he had done and when they asked me to do it, I was honored to be able to move in this space because I think it is a space of healing. And it's a necessary space. It’s a space where we are prioritizing Black women and Black women's needs and health. I think that is something that isn't really happening in the world. There are people who feel threatened by any forward movement of anyone else, and they think, "Black women get everything. Black folks get everything." Well we know that that's not true. We are in a time when that is needed, on the heels of George Floyd, on the heels of COVID, how devastating that was to the Black community and to frontline workers, which are very often Black women. It has already been a great learning experience, and in some places, very healing for me as well.

What does it mean for you to feel seen?

It changes daily. In my work, it's hoping that people will recognize the work I've put in and the value that I bring to what I do. Hoping that people will continue to trust and follow in my journey, that they have faith I'm trying to give them something I believe in. In life, it's being given the space to not be perfect, being given the space to be sad, being given the space to not want to take or post a picture that day. You know? And I think that changes daily.

What did you learn about health care, HIV and Black women that you didn't know before?

So much. I had no idea that HIV infection rates were so rampant in New Orleans, with Black women specifically, that the numbers are still going up. Of course, I was under no delusion that HIV was gone in any stretch of the imagination, but I didn't know that it affected Black men in the numbers that it does, specifically in Atlanta and in D.C. I had heard a report on that that was mind blowing some years ago [that 1 in 2 Black men will be HIV-positive if the numbers continue the way they were], but I've never heard of the numbers in the way that it affects Black women. [19 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2017 were women, and rates among Black women were 15 times higher than in white women.]

I think that part of the reason why it's affecting Black women in the numbers that it is is because the information is not out there. I was heartened by the fact that [Being Seen's sponsor] ViiV healthcare is run by a women-heavy staff. Women doctors and scientists and researchers, they are focusing specifically on the health of Black women, which is important because so many times, we are not the focus.

Why is it important for Black women to share their stories?

What can make something feel unsurmountable is the fact that you feel alone. You find very quickly, when listening to the podcast, that whoever you may be, you are never the only one. 

The people we're talking to are really amazing women and femmes. They're all from a certain stratosphere. You'll find that when you're looking at someone who you think has everything, that “everything” includes the same problems everyone else has. Now, are we homogenous? No, but we all carry the bias and the stigma that we are living with as Black women when we go into a hospital and we're hoping to give birth, and maybe we don't make it out of the hospital. Or maybe the baby doesn't make it. Maybe both of us don't make it. We're both dealing with that. We saw that with Serena Williams, the world's premier athlete, someone who has made a significant amount of money and doesn't need help getting health care. We saw that she almost died because of that bias and stigma. 

The actress, singer and storyteller is shining a light on the power of community in her latest project,
The actress, singer and storyteller is shining a light on the power of community in her latest project, "Being Seen." (Credit: Erik Carter)

The roles you've played have inspired countless young artists and activists. How has being such a public storyteller made you a better activist?

You know, it's interesting. I'm always scared to use the word "activist" because there are people for whom that is their everyday being. I think that I choose roles that speak to me, that speak to my spirit somehow, where I can hear the voice of that person when I read that script, and it's talking to me. And I know that's something I should do. I think in following that internal compass, it has taken me to places that I can connect to very deeply, and therefore can give from very deeply. I try to always come from a place of integrity, whether the role is what you would consider a good bet, or a bad person.  

I am blessed in the roles that I have taken on. People feel like they can look up to those characters, those roles. I'm never really looking at the role to say, "OK, is this something that I'll be able to be a role model afterwards?" No. I can't function like that. Then I would only do this, that or the other, right? But what I can do is follow my internal compass. I'm just so grateful that when I am done [with the role], that people find a message. 

Do you have a philosophy by which you live?

My grandmother used to always say to me, "Treat people like you want to be treated." And I've not forgotten that. Do I sometimes fail? Yes. Because I'm not perfect. Sometimes people come at you one way and you're like, "Well, this is what I got for you..." But, you know, I hope that is something I keep in the forefront. I'm not the most patient person. I'm working on patience and I might be working on that to the end. But I do have that more in the forefront of my mind as an adult. It's there. In this time, people need it so much. 

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