The idea started with a simple offer on social media: “FREE THERAPY FOR MEN OF COLOR.”
Launching a new service geared toward black men, Tasnin Sulaiman and Zakia Williams — one psychotherapist and one CEO of a mental health services company, respectively — weren’t sure they would hear back from anyone.
They didn’t know if men would publicly admit that they wanted or needed mental health support. But after that first social media post, they flooded in: Dozens of men in the Philadelphia area reached out. The response was so overwhelming Sulaiman and Williams quickly learned they’d need more resources to meet the demand for free therapy.
Though the constant refrain for mental health advocacy reform is that we need to “raise awareness,” the two found the real urgent need is to increase resources.
Mental health issues for black communities — in both the Philadelphia region and nationwide — are hitting a breaking point. Headlines warn of rising suicide rates among black youth or proclaim a “growing health crisis.” The problem extends to adults too. Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for African Americans ages 15 to 24 in 2017, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, and black adults are 20% more likely to develop a debilitating mental health condition during their lifetime than white counterparts are.
Throughout the history of black people in the United States, racism, mass incarceration, police brutality, and persistent exclusion from economic opportunities — including from unfair housing and other policy — have created unique mental health challenges.
“We are, at long last, seeing people become increasingly aware of these challenges. But what we’ve seen less of is actual solutions. We built Black Men Heal to change that,” said Sulaiman.
“Black Men Heal is a nonprofit that provides free therapy to men across Philadelphia. Working with men in private practice, one of us — the psychotherapist — saw how much men opened up in the safe space of the therapy room. They seemed to be emotionally starving, yet didn’t realize their symptoms were hunger pains a consistent meal could soothe. These sessions showed firsthand how men are socially conditioned into wearing ‘masculinity masks’ that add to trauma, depression, and anxiety.