Hip-Hop, Barbershops, and Therapy: The Black Man’s Journey to Mental Health
Want to a make a room full of Black people uncomfortable? Start a conversation about mental health. If you’re lucky, you just might get one or two people who’ll engage with you before the conversation shifts to why the New York Knicks haven’t made the playoffs in four years or why Dwyane Wade signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Unfortunately, within the Black community, the subject of mental health often remains taboo tending only to surface when a celebrity kills themselves or checks into rehab. We lament, “Mental illness is real y’all,” and “You never know what someone is going through.” Yet the conversation comes to a halt. until another athlete or artist breaks down. As a community, we haven’t done our due diligence in properly addressing and discussing this incredibly important topic.
We dismiss that drunk uncle who shows up late to family barbecues as someone who, “Isn’t wrapped too tight,” or we rebuke depression and mental illness in the name of Jesus. Either way, we refuse to address the underlying roots of such critical issues. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to for real talk, to observe the realities that we so often address, because like we say, “Mental illness is real!” Right?
So, let’s talk!
My name is Lennie J. Carter. I’m a proud Black man, father, and serial entrepreneur. I grew up in Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I’ve witnessed firsthand the irreversible damage that untreated mental health conditions can do to families and communities.
My mission is to spread the word about mental health to my community, the underserved Black community. I want us to secure mental health resources, connect with one another and to have access to burgeoning technologies to obtain quality mental health care in a safe, judgment-free environment.
Why am I advocating so hard for mental health awareness? I used to be you. I was where many of you are today or have just escaped from. I came from the mean streets of Brooklyn, NY. The Brooklyn I grew up in didn’t have coffee shops, pet daycares, and bistros.
My Brooklyn was gritty.
My Brooklyn was raw.
My Brooklyn had no mercy.
My Brooklyn made me a, “Monster.” No, not a hoodlum or a criminal. Rather it formed me into a very knowledgeable, well-equipped and empathic monster who will stop at nothing to change our narrative surrounding mental health.
Yet Brooklyn’s transformation from Roc Boys to Girls hasn’t enveloped my old haunt in Brownsville.
As I look back at my childhood in Brownsville, I recall my naivety. I knew very little beyond the confines of my neighborhood and similar hoods. Take for instance my summers. My brother and I divided our time between Far Rockaway, Queens and Brownsville, Brooklyn. I can’t tell you which area was the least or most dangerous for young boys with too much time on their hands. However, despite the occasional fistfights with our enemies, our summers were uneventful.
We visited the playgrounds at Van Dyke Houses and played ball at Brownsville Recreation Center (BRC). Some days we walked to Betsy Head Pool or to Linden Plaza and the Pink Houses in East New York. We even spent time passing through Iron Mike’s old stomping ground on Amboy Street as we walked back and forth to our grandparent’s house.
Speaking of Mike Tyson, this man was a hero to the youth of Brownsville. I recall him giving out turkeys during Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was rare to see someone from our neighborhood, who had similar life experiences, make it to the big time. He gave us hope that we too could make it out of the hood and better ourselves.
Tyson was unique because while he inspired us, he also gave the world a glimpse into the mental challenges that eat away at Brownsville’s residents.
Like Iron Mike, I will never forget the things I saw and experienced growing up. I saw friends and acquaintances get killed for nothing more than bruised egos, turf wars or being collateral damage of someone else’s beefs. Even crooked cops preyed on the people in my neighborhood, locking them up for minor infractions or making them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I saw older residents strung out on drugs, sleeping on park benches (a consequence of losing their homes or feeling the pangs of living in a disenfranchised neighborhood).
I saw people who were always down and out or jittery after surviving a violent event. I would later learn this was called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I knew people who got so worked up or nervous about their lives and future, that they would check out of reality for a few days or weeks and never be the same again. I would later learn this was a nervous breakdown.
Little did I know that all this time my neighborhood was a breeding ground for mental illness. I just didn’t know the technical terms for the behaviors I witnessed.
How Did I Make It Out Alive?
Thanks to the support and encouragement of my family, I managed to stay in school. I even attended and graduated from Stony Brook University, a world away from my former life. Unfortunately, shortly after securing my master’s degree, I lost my rock, my mother, Barbara Carter to an accident. This life-altering event shook my entire world. I fell into a deep depression which threatened my willingness to live and to function as a member of society.
My turning point came when a loved one suggested going to therapy to help me cope with my recent loss and other underlying issues I had. I was reluctant. I vehemently protested seeing a therapist. I had an, “I got this” attitude but really, I didn’t. Eventually, I made it to therapy and it saved my life. I developed an understanding of the value of therapy. If I experienced healing from going to therapy, then surely my brothers and sisters could benefit from it as well.
Up until I started seeing a therapist, I was merely coping with my inner demons the way most of us do, by listening to music and talking to my friends. My parents’ generation might have listened to gospel music and the blues, I listened to hip-hop. They might have talked to a pastor or close friend as my generation talks to their barber or to their boys.
As I continued with therapy, I began to understand that my previous approach to mental and emotional wellness was futile. Discussions with my therapist allowed me to understand the differences between coping and receiving professional help. I realized that listening to music — even music that expressed my pain — or sharing my struggles with my barber were not enough. Armed with this understanding, I set out to make a change in the mental health arena in underserved communities.
Through my personal challenges, I recognized that there are four key pillars to helping others get through tough times.
- Remove the stigma
Let’s remove the stigma that’s associated with mental health illness. Some people are too afraid to seek therapy because they have been led to believe it’s a sign of weakness. Simply telling your boy to, “Man up” is not going to give him the solace he needs to deal with his problems. Remember, mental illness does not discriminate and it could be anyone’s reality.
2. Provide access
We need to provide more access to mental health professionals. Technology can help us bridge this gap. If we can get a dog walker on demand then their is no reason why we cannot have access to mental health resources.
3. Mitigate cost
Getting help from a therapist is not as expensive as one might think. Not only are there insurance plans that pay for mental health services, but many city and state agencies have heavily discounted (and at times free) mental health resources available to all people.
4. Help find the right match
People struggling with a mental health issue need a therapist with cultural competence. Finding a therapist who won’t judge you based on your socioeconomic background and appearance is key. No one wants help from someone whom they think will judge them.
If we as a community can work towards strengthening these four pillars of mental health access, this will play a huge role in helping the Black community become more comfortable addressing their mental health issues.
The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” is applicable to everyday life, including mental health awareness. Since a community or village is a group of people with shared values, goals and backgrounds, let me share with you what I’m doing to contribute to the four pillars of mental health awareness. I’m using technology to tackle all four pillars — judgment-free therapy, access to a therapist, affordable therapy, and the maintenance of a roster of culturally conscious therapists.
After I attended Stony Brook University, I decided to embark on the path of entrepreneurship. Through hard work and perseverance, I became a successful businessman. I never forgot my humble beginnings, and when the opportunity presented itself, I chose to use my resources and act accordingly. I competed in a Neighborhood Start Fund and Dream Big Foundation business competition in Brooklyn, and to my surprise, I won. TruCircle would finally see the light of the idea.
The seed for TruCircle was planted due to a chain of unfortunate events. On May 17th, 2015, my brother, Che Carter, had to come grips with the loss of his childhood friend, Chinx. Before rapper Chinx had the respect of rap mogul Diddy and fellow artist French Montana, he was just known as Lionel Pickens from Far Rock (Far Rockaway, Queens). Far Rock was home to another slain up and coming rapper, Stack Bundles. I had to deliver the crushing news the day after the 7th anniversary of my mother’s death. Again, mentally, I wasn’t in the best headspace since I had to relive the passing of my mom. However, I had to be strong for my brother during this heart-wrenching moment.
Have you ever heard a grown man sob uncontrollably? It’s something that will be etched in my mind forever. Given the circumstances of Chinx’s untimely death, I knew my brother needed more than familial support to get him through this tough time. If a platform like TruCircle existed back then, I would have known exactly where to send him to get the emotional and mental support he needed. Essentially, TruCircle came about because I wanted to help my brother cope with a loss. Now, I want to help all brothers.
Black Barbershops and Mental Health
As with most great projects, this has been a journey. As I raced toward the proverbial finish line, I kept thinking about the contributions of barbershops and hip-hop to the Black community. It’s not a hyperbole to call a barbershop the, “Black man’s country club.” The barbershop has been a safe-haven for Black men who have felt the brunt of exclusion due to injustices throughout the country. At the barbershop, you’re not invisible. Your contributions matter. Your opinions on everything from sports and politics to women and pop culture, matter. As Carlton Green, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, puts it, “The Black barbershop has been a place of self-definition where Black people have this degree of power in a society where in most cases we feel inferior.”
The Black barber plays a pivotal role in the Black man’s life. He acts as a listening ear or therapist in his own right. In modern times, going to the barbershop has become a form of therapy for a lot of Black men. The relationship between a Black man and his barber is impenetrable. Some men have even joked about being more loyal to their barbers than their actual significant others.
While it’s admirable the invaluable physical and emotional service that a barber renders, unfortunately, your barber is not a suitable mental health therapist. He might do an excellent job listening to your problems and offering sound advice, but he is not armed with the tools to help treat depression or anxiety. Essentially, the mental health support you receive in a Black barbershop is short-term and fleeting. It’s only a coping mechanism.
Hip-Hop and Mental Health
Like the powerful gospel music and mass choirs that moved previous generations, today’s and recent generations have been influenced by the musical styles, instruments and rap, collectively known as, “hip-hop.”
In 1994, The Notorious B.I.G. came out with an album that embodied the struggle of growing up in Brooklyn, NY. The album entitled, Ready to Die resonated incredibly among young Black males in Brooklyn, from Brownsville to Coney Island. With hit songs such as, “Everyday Struggle” and “Suicidal Thoughts”, the legendary rapper showed his vulnerability to stress, anxiety, depression, and grieving.
In general, 90’s hip-hop music formed the soundtrack to the common problems experienced by young Black males such as financial struggles, absentee fathers, and feelings of inadequacy. Biggie’s lyrics in, “Everyday Struggle”, resonated in my bones. I felt every syllable because I identified with the pain he spoke of.
The chorus was:
“I don’t want to live no more, sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door. I’m living every day like a hustle, another drug juggle, another day, another struggle.”
This spoke volumes then and still speaks volumes today.
Another rapper who helped defined me from a boy to a man is my favorite rapper, Nas. On the song, “Dance” (featured on his album, God’s Son), he opened up about losing his mother and all the emotions he felt. Although this song was released in 2002, it wouldn’t hit home until I lost my own queen to an accident in 2008. The first two bars of the song are feelings I have every day. “I dreamed of the day I could go back to when I was born; laying in your arms, wishing you were here mom.”
Here are recent examples of rappers sharing their thoughts on mental health:
In “Losing My Mind”, his 2014 album, Pharoahe Monch raps:
“My family customs were not accustomed to dealing with mental health/It was more or less an issue for white families with wealth.”
In October 2016, Kid Cudi publicly announced on his Facebook page that he checked himself into rehabilitation for his, “Depression and suicidal urges.” He further explained, “Anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it.”
Finally, earlier this year Chance the Rapper, one of today’s most successful artists, told Complex :
“A really big conversation and idea that I’m getting introduced to right now is Black mental health.” He further laments, “Cause for a long time that wasn’t a thing that we talked about.” He said he suffered from occasional anxiety and that he felt it might have been triggered by losing childhood friends to Chicago violence.
These songs may be helping you though they are not healing you. Like talking to your barber, music is a coping mechanism. It helps you deal with your problems just long enough to keep the monsters away, but they will return until you figure out why they bother you in the first place. That’s where a therapist comes in.
Moving from Coping to Therapy
I’ve shared with you my trajectory and how I use technology to give back. I’ve also met you at your emotional turf, where you are seated in your barber’s chair or locked in your bedroom, listening to your favorite song on repeat. I can’t stress enough the drawbacks of using these entities as your only outlets.
Now, if you know someone who is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental issue, please be a friend and get them the professional help they need. Maybe it’s you. A simple google search for the Department of Mental Health in your city can get you or them on the steady track to get the help they need. Or, you can visit the platform I built to connect patients and therapists who are eager to address and help treat their mental health issues.
I implore you to visit the option of therapy with an open mind. Here’s an excerpt from an article by writer and scholar, Maco L. Faniel, on his thoughts about therapy:
Therapy gave me the confidence to name and talk about my feelings.
Articulating my emotions allowed me to address the root causes and begin the healing process.
Therapy helped me accept that I needed to get on antidepressant medication, and gave me the insight to know when it was time to develop a strategy to get off them.
Therapy gave me the tools to face and manage conflict, when before I let it build up then I would implode or rage.
Therapy helped me to move away from co-dependent toxic relationships to a healthy romantic partnership.
Therapy helped me set boundaries.
Therapy helps you become a better version of yourself.
Read the full article here.
If you, a family member or a friend is desperate for help, don’t delay finding mental health resources at your fingertips with TruCircle. Visit MyTruCircle.com on your laptop, tablet, or mobile device to learn more.
Thank you so much for helping me start a dialogue we rarely have with one another. Let’s not only come together when a tragedy related to mental illness occurs. Instead, let’s be proactive in getting the help that we need.
Lennie J. Carter