Black Joy

Meet the Virginia native helping Black men and boys heal their mental health

James Harris was only eight when he almost slipped through the cracks of America’s mental health system.

Harris and his siblings were placed in Virginia’s foster care system after his dad died and his mother was deemed unable to take care of them after developing multiple health problems. While therapy was a weekly requirement in foster care, the older white therapist didn’t have the cultural competency to relate with Harris. The lack of rapport skewed Harris’ perception of therapy. He saw it as another requirement to check off his to-do list instead of a service to teach him to process emotions. Now 36, Harris sees how this experience influenced his adulthood.

“It made me guarded. It made me ignore certain things and just not want to do the process anymore to identify what healing was,” Harris said.

Harris didn’t know then that his foster care experience would lead him to become a licensed professional counselor who helps Black men heal. In 2018, he launched Men to Heal, a movement amplifying the importance of Black men’s mental health. A year later, he founded the Healing Hub in his hometown of Richmond, Va., where Black people can mend their mind and body relationship through outpatient therapy, yoga, Zumba classes, mindfulness classes and other community events. Every third Saturday, It’s also a space that offers clothing and meals to those that are unhoused . Black men and boys who are looking for healthy ways to process their emotions can find guidance in Harris’ interactive journal, “Man, Just Express Yourself.” He also created the “Cheesy Dates Board Game” as an innovative way for couples and potential couples to work on their communication skills while increasing spontaneity and having meaningful conversations.

Statistics show the importance of these resources. Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience severe psychological stress than white Americans, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities reported. The same year Harris started Men to Heal, the rate of major depressive disorder increased more than three percent in Black young adults. Black men are also four times more likely to die by sucide than Black women. But racial bias and mental health stigma are barriers that keep Black people from receiving adequate care.

“Mental illness is not one-size-fits-all. One’s race, culture, tribe, values and upbringing will all play a major role in honing the mold for mental illness. Factor in a systemic lack of trust in outside treatment, limited access and availability and you’re looking at a culture of bottled-up stress, unresolved grief and trauma,” James said. “Black males need a safe place to land and a place to feel welcomed and validated. There should be no assumptions about what a Black man may feel or want. The provider should ask and try to deliver based on that response.”

It’s more than just statistics for Harris. It’s his lived experience as a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 and 2014, respectively. The grief of losing friends during deployment, the struggles of being Black in the military and the trauma of surviving the gunfire and explosions of combat pushed him to give therapy another chance as an adult.

It didn’t help. Harris found himself dealing with the same issues he encountered as a child. His therapist was older. White. Not only lacking in cultural competency, but in military combat experience as well.

Harris walked away from those sessions feeling heavier than he did before. Joining a veterans support group after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became his saving grace.

“Being deployed is a different animal in itself,” Harris said. “Taking therapy from people with no combat experience, it just was different. I felt what many veterans have felt. I felt alone and ashamed. So I started attending groups and stuff. Those were a little bit more cohesive. They were a little bit more open because you got that camaraderie. You have people there who identify with the hypervigilance, the isolation from family and not wanting to go certain places and do certain things.”

During college, Harris became part of the solution to the problems he was noticing in the mental health field. There were wellness services he could provide without a license, like mentoring students and children in foster care. His conversations with teens at group homes created healing spaces where Black youth found hope. They were connecting with someone who lived their experiences and who looked like them.

Even during those moments of mentorship, Harris was doing life saving work. Children of color are overrepresented in the child welfare system, with Black children making 14 percent of the national population, but 23 percent of foster care. Cornell University researchers pointed out that Black families are about twice as likely as white parents to be investigated by child protective services due to police-initiated complaints. But those investigations aren’t always warranted because those complaints are rooted in racial bias and don’t take racial inequalities, such as Black families are more likely to be impoverished due to pay wage discrimination, into account.

Statistics paint dismal futures for foster care youth, such as being more vulnerable to incarceration and substance use. But Harris wanted the teens to know they can still take charge of their circumstances.

“You can overcome the system. A lot of people think, ‘Man, I’m a ward of the state. I’m limited on what I can do. I’m labeled now,’” Harris said. “You can go beyond your circumstance and obtain more.”

Obtaining more for Harris looked like becoming a licensed mental health professional. Men to Heal actually began as Harris’ graduate school project. He was asked to identify his counseling niche. He chose Black boys and men – those who are underrepresented both as clients and in the mental health field itself. The American Psychological Association reported that 29 percent of the mental health workforce were men in 2020, Black men made up four percent of that population. The lack of diversity adds to Black men’s difficulty finding a provider who can relate to their experiences.

It didn’t take Harris long to find clients after obtaining his license in 2018 and opening the Healing Hub a year later. Once word got around that a Black man was booking therapy sessions, Black spouses expressed their gratitude. They now know a spot where their partners and teenage sons can seek help. Even the clients themselves talked about their excitement about opening up to someone who looked like them. With the growing clientele came an increase in popularity. NBA and NFL athletes have shared Men to Heal’s merchandise on their socials. Celebrities, comedians and civil right leaders have joined Harris’ crusade to stop the stigma against therapy and save Black men.

During TedxWilmington in May, Harris challenged men to embrace their emotional vulnerability In the past year his Instagram following jumped from 2,000 followers to more than 20,500. He posts mindful advice, poses in T-shirts with phrases like “Black men, it’s OK not to be OK” and promotes events at the Healing Hub. Thousands of viewers have flocked to Men to Heal’s YouTube channel, where Harris discusses various topics, such as how mothers can raise healthy men.

Harris is grateful people are seeking his help, but he describes it as a bittersweet victory.

“They’ve found me. I’m happy I can assist them now moving forward,” Harris said. “But it saddens me to think that they were going years with these issues that could have been prevented if they’d somebody who looked like them or if they had somebody who was willing to serve them in the way they wanted to be served.”

Harris is grappling with the consequences of the racial mental health care gap. Some common themes come up amongst his Black male clients: complex trauma, unprocessed grief related to the stress they are enduring and miseducation of diagnosis. Black people are more likely to express prolonged, debilitating symptoms of major depressive disorder, but only 24 percent of Black and Hispanic men ages 18 to 44 have sought mental health care. They are also less likely to receive adequate care.

While a part of the blame lies at the feet of providers, Harris also points to the misogyny and masculinity in the media.

“A lot of men felt like depression was a women’s diagnosis. So when I’m talking with athletes, or macho, dominant men, they’re saying things like, ‘Nah, I can’t be depressed. I had seven tackles yesterday,’” Harris said. “Hollywood makes depression look like a thing when women are eating a tub of ice cream. There are rarely positive examples of men growing through depression.”

So Harris is helping them by communicating the symptoms of depression – persistent worthlessness, loss of interest in activities, changes in energy and concentration – in a way they can understand.

“When it’s an athlete, I’ll say, ‘Although you did get several touchdowns or scored this many goals, are you still hanging with your teammates after practice like you used to? Is your appetite still the same? Are you having difficulty falling asleep?” Harris said. “Then they’ll sit back and say, ‘Oh, man, these things did change. Maybe I am depressed,’ And of course, we continue to dive deep and get into the depths.”

Community building has become another mental health tool for Harris. The Healing Hub also doubles as a venue, where he and other Black men spent Juneteenth doing yoga with the Black men in his care. It’s the space where they’ve conducted voter registration drives, poetry readings and seminars. Harris said he wants to expand his services to include a host of mental health clinicians who can reach out to clients when needed.

But no matter how the Healing Hub or Men to Heal goes, he wants to keep cheering Black men on to be their best selves.

“There’s no destination in healing. You always got to do the work,” Harris said. “You always got to ensure that you’re bettering yourself and learning something new. That you’re assisting others and modeling certain behaviors to where you’re inspiring people because you probably are the anomaly.”

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