Left to right, Kevana Nixon, Tasnim Sulaiman, Ann Colley and Ryan Mcmillan, who worked together to develop Black Men Heal in its first stages, at the group's December 2018 provider appreciation event.

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.

“As one man applying to therapy wrote: I’ve been dealing with depression alone for many years. It has negatively affected my marriage and the way I parent. I need help.

“Seeing so many men who needed to stop dealing with these problems alone planted the idea to bring more of them into therapy.

“The full vision for Black Men Heal was to create a service that overcomes three major obstacles we see preventing people of color from seeking mental health support: cost, stigma, and cultural competency.

“Therapy is expensive, comes with stigma in the form of folks worrying they’ll be judged for seeking it, and hits roadblocks when a client feels as if the therapist doesn’t understand his cultural background,” the two shared.

“Here’s our approach:

Eliminate cost: Men apply to the program by first filling out a brief preliminary questionnaire, and later completing a longer application that forces them to self-reflect more deeply. We select clients based on need and compatibility with our providers. Each chosen client receives eight free therapy sessions with a qualified/licensed clinician working on a volunteer basis.

Promote cultural competency: We recruit licensed clinicians of color throughout the city who donate one hour of their time per week, for eight weeks. We thoroughly match each client to the therapist with whom he is most likely to build a strong relationship — for example, matching a client with the provider who is the best fit for his particular background and trauma, whose schedule most aligns with his, and who is geographically accessible.

Eliminate stigma: We encourage each man we work with to become a stigma slayer, by starting conversations with other men of color about mental health.

Three client groups later, with no funding or resources other than incredibly gracious volunteer providers and supporters who backed this mission, Black Men Heal has so far recruited 22 therapists of color who have donated 368 sessions to 46 men of color.

“It’s thrilling to imagine how we can shift the face of mental health.

“As we gear up for another round of clients this February, we are set to bring together our largest group of men and volunteer clinicians yet.

“We do, of course, face questions and criticisms. One question we get the most: “Why are two black women leading a charge that is all about serving black men? Why didn’t you start this for women?”

“In response, we tell them this service is for black women, too. Healing pain and trauma in black men can help to heal us all, by repairing and building healthy relationships among black men, women, and children, as well as increasing the emotional wellness and mental stability of our communities. And while our services are geared toward black men and men of color, our doors are open to all men.

“Through this work, we are learning that solutions arise when we get tired of talking about a problem — of merely calling for awareness — and decide to start tackling it.”

Tasnim Sulaiman is CEO of TazTalkTherapy. Zakia Williams is CEO of Interface Psych Services. They are cofounders of Black Men Heal.