Panelists emphasize need for Black men to practice 'self care'
By Camal Shorter, Coolidge High School
June 15, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic and now massive nationwide protests against police violence have focused attention on ongoing threats to the physical health of the Black community.
But what about threats to mental health, particularly to the spiritual and emotional well-being of Black men?
That was the topic of a webinar titled “Reclaiming Your Wellness” sponsored by the Washington Association of Black Journalists on June 6. The speakers were Richard Dyer, president and general manager of WUSA-TV Channel 9; Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, a practicing psychiatrist and former District of Columbia chief health officer, and Brandon Gillespie, a therapist and mental health advocate in New York City.
All three said that, especially in this time, Black men need to practice “self-care” and pay particular attention to their mental, emotional and spiritual well being.
“As Black folks we have a lot of heat coming to us,” Richard Dyer said. Black folks must decide, he said. Do we want to be a “thermometer, and just reflect that heat? Or a thermostat (that) regulates it?”
Self-care can mean visiting a psychiatrist, but the men stressed that it doesn’t just have to be that kind of traditional therapy. Self-care can actually be practiced in many other ways, whether it be by taking a walk, expressing yourself through a creative outlet or hanging out with a friend.
For instance, while locked down all alone by COVID-19, Gillespie said he did jumping jacks and practiced “karaoke by myself” in his New York City apartment. He also made a “resource map” of relatives and friends, and tried calling one of them whenever he felt lonely to talk for a minute – and to listen. By doing that, he felt that he was saying that “even in the midst of chaos, I am not in the past, not in the future, but right here!”
Dyer, who wakes early for his demanding job, said he sets aside some morning time “sometimes before the sun comes up” to practice meditation and to make a “simple act of gratitude.”
“It’s a great way to set your spirit in a positive direction,” Dyer said.
Walks, an active churchgoer since his youth, helps lead a once-a-week men’s only discussion group at his church in which Black men are encouraged to share problems and solutions.
“As Black men we have to reach out and be as open as we can be,” Walks said. “We know that we are not supposed to cry (but) this is a safe space ... When we learn to do that with each other, man, that’s powerful.”
All three men noted that there is a stigma attached to mental health, especially for men of the Black community. Black men, they said, are taught to always have a “ tough shell” when confronting problems, refusing to seek help or sometimes even to say to themselves that they are having problems. Refusing to be vulnerable and not having any outlets where you can express yourself can cause you to bottle these things up and explode later, with bad consequences, the three men said.
The three speakers added that it is especially important for Black men not just to come to terms with their own reality but to set an example for young Black boys. Boys need to know, Dyer said, that it is okay to learn to be open and sensitive while they’re still growing into men.
The speakers also argued in favor of men seeking professional therapy when needed. They acknowledged that seeking therapy can be considered taboo, but said that Black men must resist that type of thinking.
Dr. Ivan Walks said Black men should think of therapists in very practical terms. “Why would you not utilize a professional whose entire profession is geared towards helping you work out the issues you may have?” he said. “That's like trying to fix your own car when there’s a mechanic down the street.”
Despite the present challenges, all three speakers were confident that Black men will emerge from the present crises solid and stronger.
“We are made of sterner stuff, we will persevere,” Walks said.
“This is an opportunity to create, to change and to move toward a higher level of consciousness,” Gillespie added.
Richard Dyer urged the webinar participants, and Black men in particular, to take the long view.
“Reality is imposed from the outside in, but we need to look from the inside out,” he said. “Resilience is in our DNA. Look back at our ancestors.”