In observance of Juneteenth, we’re exploring the theme of Black emancipation from new perspectives. Because June is also recognized as Men’s Health Month, looking at Black men’s mental health through the lens of emancipation from trauma, stigma, loneliness, and isolation is especially relevant.

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In this episode of Into the Fold, we discuss Black men’s unique mental health challenges with Thabiti Boone, mental health advocate and Champion of Change in the Obama administration’s Fathering and Mentoring Initiative. In February 2023, he delivered the keynote address at the Central Texas African American Family Support Conference.

Mental Health and Black History

Two young black men talking on steps

Credit: Project 290 (@project290) | Unsplash Photo Community

While we all experience emotional stress and mental health challenges, individuals in the Black community experience added challenges specific to their history and lived experience.

“The Black community has been faced with trauma since we’ve been in this country because of being enslaved by this country,” says Thabiti. “As a people, we’ve been bombarded with and sabotaged by a myriad of mental health challenges. When you look at the years of the trauma of being enslaved, the trauma of not knowing who you are, not having a sense of your own humanity or self-determination, not knowing how you define and position yourself in this country around the pursuit of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, Black people have faced persistent, constant challenges.”

These decades of institutional and societal racism have affected Black men in particular, leading to high rates of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

“Our lives are always on the line, whether at the hands of law enforcement or even at the hands of each other. All this trauma has put us in a sad dilemma around our mental health and emotional stability,” Thabiti says. “And the question becomes, how do we get out of it?”

Becoming Vulnerable

As a mental health advocate and public speaker, Thabiti makes a point to share his personal story. It’s a powerful way to normalize the vulnerability and mental health challenges that often result from traumatic life experiences. He talks openly about being born to a 13-year-old mother and an abusive father, growing up in a community marked by drugs and violence, and witnessing his mother attempt suicide when he was a child.

“When it comes to Black men, the word ‘vulnerability’ has traditionally been seen as ‘anti-masculine.’ But we’re becoming more comfortable with that word, and I’ve been one of the ones raising my hand, saying, ‘here’s my story,’ ‘here’s what I’ve been through,’ ‘here are my challenges,’ and ‘here’s my vulnerability,’” says Thabiti. “Vulnerability starts with opening up and sharing. The next step is feeling the emotions that come from being reminded of the traumatic experiences you’ve gone through. And the last piece is being able to say, ‘it’s okay to open up, it’s okay for Black men to share and express and even shed emotional tears over what we’ve gone through.’”

Despite the expectation to be strong that Black men often put on themselves, it’s okay for them to not be okay, Thabiti says.

“What happens among Black men if we don’t have spaces where it’s okay to not be okay, then our trauma comes out with a lot of self-harming – physical, mental, spiritual, social, and emotional,” says Thabiti. “We can’t have appropriate, healthy relationships with others. As hurt people, we end up hurting other people. And that keeps the whole vicious cycle going. That’s another thing I had to learn.”

Supporting Black Men

As a college basketball Hall of Famer, Thabiti uses the sport as a vehicle to encourage conversations around Black men’s mental health in his work with Fathers and Men of Professional Basketball Players, and the NBA’s New York Knicks.

“When I was young, sports, and basketball in particular, became my counselor. It became an environment in which I could find myself, find a big piece of my purpose and who I am, and help balance out all the challenges I was going through. Basketball became a huge part of surviving and became a very soothing mental foundation for me,” says Thabiti. “So, in my work I ask myself how I can take who I am as a basketball player and what I’ve learned through sports and communicate that to the young men, the fathers, particularly in the Black community. I want to make sure I’m using it as a healing tool, a mental health tool, to help empower Black men and Black boys.”

Thabiti believes this sort of mutual support among Black men is essential.

“If there’s one wish I have for us, it’s that we spend more time looking out for and looking after one another. That would do so much for our mental health and for who we are as Black men in this country,” Thabiti says. “We have so much fighting against us, the last thing we need as Black men is to be against one another. So, my greatest wish, to Black men: Let’s be there for one another, not the enemies of each other.”

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