Mental Health Awareness Week: Black Men Healing Through Therapy

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In recent years, the Black community has started to break out of the stereotypes that therapy is not for Black people. Organizations like Therapy for Black Men, Black Men Heal, and Black Male Mental Health have started to create spaces for healing, unique and specific to Black men. The revolution for Black men and their mental health is spearheaded by knowledge and access. From Black community organizers creating directories where Black men can find services for trauma counseling, to life coaches not shying away from being explicitly focused on helping heal Black men from the traumas of childhood, mental health in the Black community is more front and center that it has even been at any time in history.

During the coronavirus pandemic, there isn't anyone regardless of race, religion or gender that can avoid being subjected to trauma responses. However, the pandemic coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement, which in some ways is a direct response to the unjustifiable murders of Black American men, places an undeniably heavier burden on Black men at a time that is already burdensome.

I spoke with two of my colleagues, Donney Rose and Micah Schaffer, about their personal experiences with mental health, going to therapy and getting by during quarantine. They also share the songs that help them get through trying times.



Branden Janese: Growing up, did you experience traditional mental health of any kind?

Micah Schaffer: Yeah, it's actually funny that you mentioned that. As a kid, I actually had to visit a grief counselor. My mom passed away almost a month before my seventh birthday. I remember being in the sessions and them kinda asking a bunch of questions about how you're feeling emotionally, like, if you were angry. I remember them giving us a teddy bear and saying that if we wanted, we wanted to we [could] rip it up.

BJ: Did you rip it up?

MS: I don't think I did, but I think my brother did.

BJ: Have you been to therapy since that time?

MS: Yeah. Towards the end of last year, I was going through a lot of life changes and a lot of personal trials so I went to talk to someone. I went consistently for about 2 months. I found it beneficial, and I still do. I think I actually might return to another counselor though. The counselor I had was not very attentive. It was really a bad experience. He would answer the phone in the middle of a session and answer the door and other people would come in.

BJ: Oh, wow. That sounds like a sitcom. Was he Black?

MS: No, it was a white guy.

BJ: How do you feel about that? Should Black people, especially Black people who are going to therapy for the first time choose a Black therapist?

MS: I don't think that I would consider somebody who isn't Black anymore. I think about health care and how Black people get a lower quality of healthcare even going to a hospital or general doctor.

BJ: Do you have any anxiety when you take your daughter out?

MS: I used to, especially towards the beginning because she wouldn't wear her mask.

We're in New York City. We did make the decision to take her back to like daycare during the days. She just recently started wearing her mask over her nose and her mouth before she wouldn't.

BJ: During the pandemic what’s most different about the way your daughter is growing up versus the way you grew up?

MS: Whenever I was growing up I had the neighborhood kids, cousins, and just a bunch of people around all the time. Other than the kids her age at daycare she comes home, so she's just with us. That’s really different, that's something I have noticed.

BJ: What song gets you through it?

MS: Kendrick Lamar’s “GOD.”



Branden Janese: What are your thoughts on the idea of black folks taking a step into more non-traditional, at least in the black community, ways of tackling mental health?

Donney Rose: To a large extent, people of older generations want to avoid the stigma that came with the idea of Black folks not having sound mental health. And I think that a lot of that was based on trying to avoid yet another means of being dehumanized.

Black America has had a long history with doctors of all sorts experimenting on our personhood on our bodies So I think a lot of it was, let’s not deem ourselves in need of mental health counseling because we don't want one more way of being dehumanized.

A lot of people in our communities and in our families were trying to avoid this idea of being labeled crazy even though folks were suffering with PTSD, even though folks were suffering with (being)bi-polar, even though the folks were suffering with manic disorder and anxiety, the bigger goal or the bigger idea was ‘we cannot be deemed crazy.’

America weaponizes any of our flaws against us. I think there has been a push for generations to avoid that. [Today] we are thinking about what it looks like for us to have sound mental health.

BJ: Do you see a lot of Black folks going to therapy in your own circle?

DR: Absolutely. I was one of the last of my close friends to start seeing a counselor.

Folks want to live full and complete and holistic lives. And we know that we cannot achieve that by just having decent physical health. We need to be, you know, mentally sound, spiritually sound and emotionally sound. The people in my circle have been on [therapy], my wife had been in counseling three years before I started.

BJ: Do you see therapy and counseling changing the people around you for the better?

DR: Yeah I'm seeing it first hand in my house. My partner experienced a great deal of breakthroughs that she shared with me in various conversations. In my friend circle, I’ve watched folks grow. I witness us having much more involved conversations about where we were emotionally, and just a little bit more in-depth about who we are as people.

BJ: I mean, and in that sense, 2020 is the year of everybody being at home, everyone being on top of everyone, you know. Can you talk about the idea of privacy today? With everyone being at home and never really getting a minute alone.

DR: Yeah. So I'm gonna go back to the example with my wife, and I because I think this is something a lot of people have dealt with.

Things are a lot different at home. Every time you round the corner in your domicile, the person who you cohabitate with is there. There's something to be said about the privacy that's been taken from us just from the ability to leave the house. When you find yourself in a situation where the person or persons that you are sharing domiciled with are around all the time, you definitely find yourself starving for privacy.

For example, when I was leaving the house to go to work, there were points when I’d have lunch by myself and that allowed moments to decompress with no one around, you know what I mean? Now, when I have lunch, for the most part, it's my wife and I, and we may enjoy each other's company. There's something to be said about being able to be by yourself.

A couple of months back my wife was in a session with her counselor at our house. And I made some reference to me being able to hear them. When she told her counselor that I could hear at least one end of the response, the counselor was like, ‘Okay, like that can't happen anymore.’

I ended up for a couple of sessions, going outside of the house, sitting in my car because they could not run the risk of her privacy being interrupted. There are times when I just go in the backyard and put my earbuds in for 45 minutes. When I go back inside I go back recharged because I had that moment of separation.

BJ: Even with all that, could you possibly hear the argument that Black Americans will never be able to hide their mental health struggles? It is on the news every day unlike any other race in this country.

DR: I think that what happens is that Black life in America is an ongoing exhibition that everyone gets to see. So much of our life and our livelihood is in this almost exhibition phase, it does render a level of difficulty for us to be reclusive about our mental health because everyone is watching the Black America show.

BJ: It’s “The Truman Show.”

DR: Right, right. Everyone is tuned in to the display of our humanity. And everyone has a goddamn critique.

We should not be concerned with the outside perceptions about what we're doing to take care of our mental health. When it comes to mental health, that is very much an individual journey. A lot of us grew up in families where we quote on quote “ain’t have no business.”Your business was everyone’s business. “What you mean you keeping secrets?” “What you mean you closing the door in my house?”

For a lot of us, it's a new cultural awakening to give ourselves permission to keep things to ourselves. I'm all about Black folks being selfish with regards to prioritizing and taking care of our mental health.

BJ: What song gets you through it?

DR: Ledisi’s “Alright.”