Naheim Banks can trace the beginnings of his mental health journey to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
His father would see him bent over his kitchen table, buried in school work, and say he looked like a painting of a man with the world on his shoulders. With the labor came stress and depression.
“I wasn’t being the same around my family. I wasn’t playing video games with my brother like I normally do. I wasn’t gossiping with my twin sister like I normally do,” said Banks, a senior at Howard University. “I was getting out of my character.”
On Tuesday, Banks, a White House HBCU scholar, spoke at a roundtable concerning the need to address mental health among young Black men. He was joined by Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, Susan Rice, domestic policy advisor to President Joe Biden, and Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association.
The discussion took place weeks after Biden promised to do more to support the mental health of children struggling with bullying, violence, and trauma by providing better access to mental health care in schools during his State of the Union address.
“We’re building a system with enough capacity and the right competencies to treat everyone,” Rice said. “We’re connecting people to culturally competent and trauma-informed services that they need by tackling high costs and other barriers.”
The crisis is especially severe among young Black men.
Nearly 40% of Black teenagers say they struggle with persistent feelings of sadness. More than 20% of Black teenagers reported seriously considering suicide, Rice said.
Over the last three years, suicide rates among Black Americans ages 10 to 24 increased 36%. Compared to white Americans, half as many Black American who need mental health treatment receive it, she said.
Some of this disparity can be blamed on stigma — the shame and hesitation people feel about seeking help for mental health issues, especially in marginalized communities.
Murthy, the first surgeon general of Indian descent, struggled with his mental health during his own childhood when he realized his skin and culture were different from those around him, he said.
“So much was different in my life that it made me feel like I didn’t quite fit in,” he said. “I also didn’t tell anybody about it because I felt a sense of shame. A shame that too many people feel when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing.”
Years later, as he was doing his homework at the kitchen table, he received a phone call that his uncle had taken his own life. As he struggled to process the death, he realized his family didn’t know how to talk about the issue, he said.
“We felt a sense of guilt and shame that too many families feel when dealing with suicide,” Murthy said. “It’s taken us a long time to recognize as a country that mental health is no less important than our physical health. And it’s something we should be able to talk about as openly and as honestly as we would talk about a broken ankle or sprained wrist.”
Despite the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues in the Black community, Banks sought out and began therapy.
It helped him approach problems and relationships differently. His grades improved and he got his first apartment, he said.
“It helped me become a better person all around,” he said. “That’s something that never would have happened if I didn’t take that leap of faith into receiving help that is often stigmatized.”
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