EU re-airs 'African American Male Mental Health' discussion

Category:  News
Friday, April 2nd, 2021 at 3:07 PM
EU re-airs 'African American Male Mental Health' discussion by Maya Jones

Edinboro University hosted a Black History Month virtual event on Feb. 9, titled “African American Male Mental Health.” Dr. Armani Davis, an Edinboro alumnus, led the discussion about the impact of mental health issues on African American men. Davis was joined by panelists Johnnie Geathers, a mental health therapist, and Aaron Taylor, a teacher for Erie Middle School and another EU alumnus.

The event served as a re-airing of a fall 2020 presentation, but it remained relevant. While COVID-19 continues to add stresses and isolation to our country, each shared personal strategies and stories that they use in their lives to make it through.

Taylor, who is in his third year teaching music in the Erie school district, said: “I use music as a key to open up the door to conversations that we can have.” Taylor brought his personal experience into the talk, as well. “For the past several years of my life, I was in and out of therapy. Not because I was trying to break the stigma. I wasn’t crazy. I was trying to learn how to manage. Because in school, especially as a teacher, we are taught how to do math, we are taught how to read [and] comprehend, we’re taught geography. But we are not taught how to manage ourselves.”

Following Taylor, Geathers talked about how he spent his youth. “[I was] growing up in Philadelphia, helping people. I was so used to helping people, volunteering in hospitals, doing the Ronald McDonald house, and doing summer camps … that led me into getting more interested in learning how to continue to help people.” Geathers, who attended Penn State for his undergraduate degree, said after moving to Pittsburgh for his master’s in social work, he began working as a therapist. “My current position right now is with Familylinks,” he said. “I work in a therapeutic classroom where I am linked with a Pittsburgh public school where I do individual and group therapy, and therapy in the classroom just to make sure the child gets their needs met so they can be able to transition back into the mainstream classroom.”

Davis explained that his mental health journey began in sixth grade when he realized he had issues with anger management. “[I] had a little bit of mental support help during my college years and really battled back and forth with mental health ... This conversation today I expect to be therapeutic for myself as well.” He emphasized the importance of being able to discuss his feelings “with people who look like me and people who care about my well-being.”

Discussing the increase in African American mental health issues and the stigma that African Americans face when seeking treatment, Davis said: “Since 2018, we have seen a lot of increase in the risk of mental health cases for African American males or Black African Americans in general. We see about 20% of an increase of mental health cases for African Americans, but we also know that there is a stigma within our community about receiving mental health services — even though we know we are diagnosed and need a certain level of treatment.”

The panelists were then asked how they knew it was time for them to begin their mental health journeys. Geathers said he went to therapy on three separate occasions, which seemed to help him. “The first time I went to therapy was in 2017 because I was feeling down and out on myself. I was trying to get over a hurdle of passing my social work license so I could expand and go above and beyond in my career. I was always putting myself down every time I kept failing the exam,” he explained. “I was comparing myself to other colleagues, watching them get their licenses and I was still stuck. And so I went to therapy to, you know, get those clearances that I wasn’t a failure.”

Geathers said the second session stemmed from wanting to keep himself mentally stable. “At the end of 2018 and going into 2019, I suffered three seizures. I had three seizures in my sleep. And with the three seizures, it was due to the fact of sleep deprivation, and just stress, and overall emotions that I was holding in,” he said. “It took my family — well, my mom and sister — to tell me that if you’re a therapist, and you’re helping people and giving them solutions to their problems, you should go seek therapy yourself so you can be able to maintain your well-being. If you love helping people you should be able to help yourself as well.”

Geathers said his motivation to go back to therapy was so he didn’t “go back to the past of holding my emotions in, overworking myself, and being aware to focus on myself.” He continued, explaining, “even though people see me as a person they can go to for guidance, I have to be able to take guidance within myself, and learn about self-care and things like that.” Geathers then said the ongoing pandemic has also pushed him into therapy because he was furloughed. “I was in a real uproar [and] wondering what’s next? What’s going to happen? And I was like, you know what, I’m going to go to therapy just to keep myself sane and positive.”

Taylor acknowledged similarities to Geathers. “When I was in sixth grade, I went to a new school, and a lot of my friends had transitioned with me. I already had an established group of friends, and I didn’t realize that you had to re-establish friend groups in middle school because I just had the same consistent group of friends all my life,” he said. “I ended up becoming really close with my guidance counselor at the time, and luckily for me she was always available every time I would sit outside her door ... She was just there to comfort me and tell me, ‘you’re not crazy, this is something that happens, your feelings are real.” This guidance counselor also taught Taylor how to process those feelings.

He said that strategies his own guidance counselor taught him have become useful within his own career. “Another milestone of my mental health career is when I was in college [and] I was just going through a really tough time. I had just moved off campus, and I was in a really bad relationship. Things were just kind of pinned against me. School wasn’t going well, I put too much on my plate, and kind of my back was against the wall,” said Taylor. “I was experiencing depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and I just didn’t know what to do. All these thoughts started to creep into my head and I realized that I needed help.”

“Fortunately, Edinboro University did have therapists on campus,” said Taylor. “I started going there and it actually allowed me to help break down one of the barriers that I feel like other African Americans face … [the] financial aspect.” Taylor said he didn't realize Edinboro’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) allowed students 10 free counseling sessions per academic year and thought it was an extra service that had to be paid out of pocket. He then added, “I am currently now still seeing the same therapist that I have been seeing for over a course of a year and six months, and I believe that consistency is key when you’re trying to work on your mental health.”

Next, the panelists talked about feeling like an outcast and holding resentment for wanting help or receiving treatment. “In the beginning of it, I just felt ‘othered,’ like I was less than,” said Davis. He was being taken out of special activities, or being put in different portions of class “to go into this group to learn about different ways to control my anger.” He continued: “And I didn’t always feel comfortable sharing those situations, so I think I had more resentment toward the therapy process in the beginning.” Davis, who teaches developmental courses at the collegiate level, said, “I feel like I see a lot of us in our young men today.”

Tossing his own question into the ring, Davis then asked what the other panelists think prevents young men of color from seeking out mental health treatment in today’s world. For Geathers, it’s a matter of ego and pride. “Those main two things stuck out to me because of the fact that when a Black man seeks therapy, it’s like: ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s up with you? Why are you going to therapy? Why are you seeking counsel? Why are you trying to get your needs met in order? Toughen up!’”

He continued: “Most of the time, with us men, there is a generational curse where we are not able to express our emotions. We either gotta say, ‘man up’ or ‘toughen up,’ and sometimes with us men we hold that in and it gets to a point where we have a breaking point and we just release it out.”

Geathers said sometimes that release comes at the wrong time to the wrong person. “We need to educate our Black men and say: ‘it’s OK to go to therapy, it’s OK to seek help. It’s not a weakness. You’re not being considered weak because you’re seeking help for yourself.’ That’s a strength because you’re trying to build up yourself and trying to build up confidence within yourself. You can be stable within your mind, your body and your spirit.”

Davis jumped in, mentioning that the word “crazy” haunted him throughout his life and his journey with his anger management. “I felt like the more I could suppress my anger and not talk about it, the more I could hold it back. [I felt] that it would just go away because when I had my breakdowns, people referred to me as crazy,” he explained. “Crazy was another form of otherness for me; it made me feel disconnected in a lot of circles. It made it really hard for me to maintain relationships growing up, until I got older and I was able to grasp it. I think that’s what scared me the most growing up ... that word ‘crazy.’”

Taylor shared this sentiment with Davis. “I think that when it comes to the word ‘crazy,’ one of my deepest fears is to be homeless. Usually, homeless people are referred to as crazy. And that’s where my mind went … Some of the stigma that comes with seeking out help is just a distrust of the health care system. How many times have we seen a doctor tell us something, but they’re not giving us the full truth.” Taylor said the “lack of culturally competent providers” is a big gap in healthcare, “especially when the field of therapist as a whole is a predominantly white field, with a very, very small pool of African American therapists.”

Discussing the role of the self in the mental health journey, Taylor said the most important thing is to acknowledge it. “As Black men, we can’t suppress it. I think that’s something we’re taught growing up.” He continued: “I kind of felt like an outlier in my community because growing up my sport was baseball. That’s what I was good at. All my friends, they played football and sometimes it created a barrier, but other times we were all just athletes. We should apply the same concept when talking about mental health. Just talking about the conversations we need to have. We need to learn how to not self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Pretty much [it’s] being an ambassador of your own mental health.”

Davis said you have to have self-awareness and “know what things are hindering you.” While recognizing that sometimes people “just want a quick fix,” Davis said there may not be one. “You gotta be able to just sit in it and process it. In terms of getting yourself in order, it is not going to be an overnight thing. For example, if you go to therapy for an issue, you have to be able to realize it’s not going to be fixed the next day. It’s going to be a process; just accept the process.”

Maya Jones is a contributing writer for The Spectator. She can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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