Unrealistic expectations based on gender and race often reveal the unique challenges that keep Black men out of therapy.
The expectation that being a man and being vulnerable shows a sign of weakness, in which they are often subject to ridicule and shaming for what are natural and healthy expressions of emotion. For these men, this creates a sense of isolation and resentment as they struggle with how to process and talk about their emotional experiences.
Dear Fathers, an organization founded by St. Louis natives Jesse Alex and Lamar Johnson Jr., is aiming to address the inequities of Black mental health by building a therapy space and network for Black men and fathers to unpack, fellowship and connect.
“We started brainstorming the black fatherhood space and seeing what was out there and wanted to come up with something that was impactful and wanted to do it differently,” said Alex. “We are responsible for our mental health, but we need help and support.”
That’s when they reached out to Brad Edwards, another St. Louis native known for his community service work under his organization The Talented 10th Collective: a platform that provides manpower to area organizations tasked with uplifting and changing communities mentally, physically, and economically.
Through their collective resources, they launched “STR8 MENTAL”, a free, virtual therapy service aimed at connecting Black men to mental health practitioners while also providing a safe space to those experiencing life-changing events to express their concerns through live discussions guided by a specialist.
“I hosted our first session right before I went into the hospital to have my daughter,” said Edwards as he smiled. “For a lot of these guys it’s the first time they have had any experience with a healthcare professional. It’s therapeutic for us to hold these free flowing conversations and see the healing, and in turn heal ourselves.”
The Str8 Mental virtual therapy sessions occur the last Sunday of each month in partnership with Dear Fathers and The Talented 10th Collective. The two-hour sessions, led by two Black male therapists, have had over 400 men participate since its start in May of 2020.
Johnson, a father of two daughters, explained that the therapy sessions launched in the middle of the pandemic as COVID-19 started to uncover the systemic racial inequities evident in Black and brown communities. As a Black man, he felt ownership in addressing those issues facing his own people.
“We ourselves are Black men and we all have things that we are going through,” said Johnson. “We just knew as men that we needed to talk. We didn’t think it would be this impactful and it just has been growing ever since.”
After every session, the team receives praises from those participating about how the open dialogue amongst people that share similar experiences with them has been impactful and somewhat life changing.
One participant acknowledged that: “It’s really crazy how few opportunities Black men have to be vulnerable in society – let alone amongst each other in real authentic ways.”
Arron Muller, a clinical social worker and therapist based in New York who has attended the therapy sessions stated: “I enjoyed the opportunity to process, share and fellowship with the fathers during my time with them. Being able to engage in meaningful conversation about our mental health as men and fathers is the reason why! It makes me want to continue to do the work as a mental health practitioner, because the work is important. Thank you to Dear Fathers and let’s continue to debunk the myths that men do not express their emotions.”
Alex and Johnson started Dear Fathers in September 2019 based on conversations of growing up with an absent parent. The organization has become the premier media platform for black fatherhood by uplifting, educating, and telling stories from Black fathers around the world to their growing follower base.
“We’re telling all these stories from the perspective of Black men, rather husbands, single fathers, stepdads, whatever it may be, I’m able to tap into that from every single story and now have access to so much information that I was missing growing up,” said Johnson. “My perspective has changed on what a man is and even just what a Dad is.”
Alex, who has suffered from anxiety and depression, explained that the Str8 Mental therapy sessions have created a safe space for him and others to open up about their personal issues and wants more people from St. Louis to get involved in the sessions.
“We want to tap into all the communities that we are in, but most importantly the communities that we came from,” said Alex who grew up in the City of Jennings. “Our team is mostly people from St. Louis, and if we can work together, we can build something that’s bigger than all of us.”
Many therapists say that Black men are not receiving the care they need, either because of a lack of therapists in their communities, the high cost of care, or the stigma surrounding mental illness and getting treatment.
Dear Fathers is working on building a network of licensed mental health professionals and will be announcing an upcoming partnership to provide free mental health services to Black men.
“There’s so many different things that this platform can do, and we are doing, for the community,” said Edwards. “ People understand how important it is for the Black man to receive these services and to be exposed and normalize these conversations of taking care of your mental health. Coming to a session and being vulnerable and sharing is not a weakness. It’s strength to be able to face what it is that scares you and to be able to heal from it.”
Dear Fathers continues to provide social support to Black men and fathers using information and prompts from their podcast, social media platforms and other community initiatives. This year, the organization hopes to connect with other like-minded individuals and businesses to strengthen their impact and reach through sponsored programs.
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