Ask A Mental Health Advocate: Q&A with Yolo Akili

Written By Tyrus Townsend

Healing Justice Worker and Author Yolo Akili Robinson Teaches Us How To Heal Ourselves and Our Brothers Once and For All

As black men, we have a tendency to neglect our own spiritual, mental and emotional well-being for the sake of others. The data suggests that mental health is the last item on our wellness to-do list. According to the American Psychological Association 30.6 percent of men have suffered from a period of depression in their lifetime and that number is steadily increasing each year. Factors like work-related stress, socio-economic pressures, and the current political environment can affect us mentally and physically.

The traditional methods we use to cope with mental health issues just aren’t effective. So today we look to Yolo Akili Robison, the author of "Dear Universe" and Founder/Executive Director of B.E.A.M. (Black Emotional And Mental Health), who is dedicated to creating a world where there are no barriers to black healing. An organization created to help us not only deal with mental and emotional trauma from the past, but to help you live a healthier life going forward.

Scotch Porter: Tell us about your organization, B.E.A.M and its mission to create a space for black mental health needs.

Yolo Akili: BEAM is a national training, movement building, and grant making institution dedicated to the healing, wellness and liberation of Black and marginalized communities.

One of the things we do is train non mental health professionals - people like teachers, pastors, and community leaders—to provide peer and first responder support for our communities, when a licensed counselor is not available. We also hold community education events, like Black Healing Remixed, which featured award winning actress Jenifer Lewis, and our Giants Fall collaboration with the Emmy award winning show Giants and President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.  Our work focuses on giving more people in our communities accurate mental health education and skills to support themselves and each other.

SP: How would you describe to state of black men's mental health today as opposed to a decade ago? What factors play a big role in their mental anguish?

YA: Black mens’ mental health today is in dire need of addressing.  We have always suffered trauma and distress from racism, homophobia, transphobia and more—it’s only in the last few years that many of us are acknowledging the impact on our mental health. A big factor is male socialization. In addition to experiencing all these systemic challenges, we have been conditioned to not tend to our emotional selves so instead these feelings fester, isolate us, and impede our ability to support others or ourselves.  Sometimes that shows up in depression, or us not taking medications when we are living with Bi-polar disorder—because we believe we need to just “man up” and overcome it. Black men encounter so much harm, it’s up to us to do ongoing healing work to prevent it from blocking our joy. We also have to do a better job of showing our boys that it’s alright to be vulnerable.

SP: What are some steps that you found successful in your own healing that are included in your methods of addressing mental health issues?

YA: I had to be honest with myself and others about how I was struggling. I had to go out and ask for help and get therapy. I also had to stop and just assess myself—because for so many of us as men, being stressed out, overwhelmed and self medicating with alcohol or ignoring the impact of our emotions is “normal”. We have to realize we can have a more fulfilling emotional lives— whether we are dealing with  general distress or a formal mental health diagnosis, we have to imagine that our lives can feel more connected.

SP: What are some non-traditional ways men can engage and build community amongst each other during this mental health crisis?

YA: Start a simple support group. Bring men together to read books on mental health and share with each other what you are learning. Find a local therapist who can drop in and support if possible.

Some books I suggest:

  • Bell Hooks — “The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love” or “We Real Cool: Black Men & Masculinity”
  • Darnell Moore — “Ashes in The Fire”
  • David Barclay Moore —  “The Stars Beneath our Feet”

The last two are black men who I admire and respect and they explore mental health themes.

You can also watch great Ted talks like this one by Tony porter , or mine from my keynote at Claremont College on Black masculinity. Watch these and discuss with the group.

Create space for you and the men around you to hold and embrace their full emotional spectrum. We also have great tools on our website like the feelings wheel, or the Healing & Accountability Wheel, which may help you begin to explore your mental health/wellness.

Also, don't be afraid of therapy. On our website we have a list of so many therapy options. Check them out.  We, as black men have the power to transform our lives and heal, but we have to take the first steps.