Black men speak up about mental health barriers and resources on Capitol Hill

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death nationwide and the numbers are rising at alarming rates for black boys and men.

This month, Black congressional leaders took a closer look at this crisis during a recent hearing.

It was organized by the Caucus on the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys. It was also supported by The Sonrise Project, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, founded by Kelli Richardson Lawson, that provides a safe space for Black families facing mental health challenges.

The panel of witnesses included social workers, psychologists and even athletes turned advocates like former NFL linebacker Marcus Smith.

“Even though, I had millions of dollars and played in the NFL arena, I’m no different than who they are and I want to leave them with the more that you speak the more that you free yourself,” said Smith in a social media video after the hearing.

This hearing comes as the latest CDC data shows suicide rates among black children, teens, and young adults (10-24 years old) increased by 36 percent between 2018-2021.

“A disproportionate number of African American men who are incarcerated in the criminal justice system, who really have behavioral health issues, they have substance use or mental health challenges,” said Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Arthur Evans was one of the men at this congressional hearing. He believes while more people are talking about therapy, there’s still some stigma.

“When it comes to our mental health…we want to be protective, we want to be secretive and if we really want to address these issues, we have to normalize it and talk about it,” said Evans.

Another barrier is access to culturally competent therapists. Right now, Black men only make up 15 percent of the mental health counselor workforce.

“There’s nothing like being able to sit across from another black man who can counsel you and provide you with the help and the authentic support that you need,” said Shawn Boynes, CEO of the American Counseling Association.

Boynes, who also appeared on this panel, said the profession needs support from Congress to help address this shortage in the workforce and increase access.

The American Counseling Association want Congress to pass the Telemental Health Care Act of 2023 which would amend the Social Security Act to provide coverage for telehealth services for mental health and behavioral health care.

“It could be anxiety, it could be depression or anything in between we need to start talking about it in the Black community in a way that normalizes,” said Boynes. “Mental health issues should not mean that you have to go hide and suffer in silence, like you can reach out and get the help that you need and hopefully you doing so will inspire someone else to get the help that they need.”

There’s also a push on Capitol Hill to increase mental health programs within schools. One proposal would offer grants to provide care from licensed therapists.

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