Strength in Vulnerability: This Black Man’s Mental Health Journey

July 31, 2023

Strength in Vulnerability: This Black Man’s Mental Health Journey

Guest Blog by Catalyst Center Staff Member, Cornelle Jenkins

Be strong. Don’t cry. Show no weakness. Show no fear. Suck. It. Up.  

Sound familiar? I’m sure many, regardless of race, have heard these words directed at them. I’m sure many have directed it at themselves. The words themselves are not good or bad. Depending on the circumstances, these words can work magic in helping overcome, persist, survive. And these very same words can also serve to shackle, dehumanize, and silence. If I’ve learned anything in this journey of life, it’s that words matter…and context matters even more.  

The stigma around mental health BIPOC communities is a crippling burden and mistrust of the very systems meant to help us heal is nothing short of a death sentence. As a 33-year-old Black man, I’ve carried that burden for most of my life. To some extent, I still do. In the heart of my community, where shared laughter, music, and collective strength are louder than the silent battles many of us face, I've found that silence is often a fortress. It provides safety, comfort, and certainty. Strength. However, I’ve come to learn that silence – guard up and defenses ready – is my default. Ironically, if you ask my wife, I talk way too much. Yet, I was still silent.  

With this mastery of emotional silence, I thought I had mastered my emotions. That is until I had my first panic attack. Correction, that is until I realized that something I had experienced on many occasions was actually a panic attack. As a child with asthma, I’m no stranger to shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, lightheadedness, and dizziness. Even without medication, my breathing was perfectly fine for most of my 20s. That quickly changed shortly after my 30th birthday. In addition to the breathing difficulties, I started experiencing stomach pains. And still, I remained silent. Telling myself, this too shall pass. It didn’t.

After months of suffering in silence, I finally went to the doctor to get checked out. While that experience was fraught with hurdles and reminded me why I hesitated to go to the doctors in the first place, I am thankful my wife encouraged me to go. After being questioned about drug usage and sent home with no real information, I followed up with my primary care physician and eventually learned that my asthma was not the issue – my issue was stress. I was internalizing so much stress that my gut was literally tired of carrying it. What I thought was my asthma coming back with a vengeance was in fact, panic attacks. Panic attacks?! How?! I don’t panic. I am strong. I am a fortress.  

Not too long after this revelation, I joined the CA Alliance and Catalyst Center team. The timing could not be more perfect. I learned more about mental health and wellness in my first few months with the organization than I did in the first 30 years of my life. I learned about trauma and the impacts it can have on your health. I learned how to express my emotions, accept my emotions, and still persevere. I learned to stop trying to control my emotions and focus on not allowing my emotions to control me. I worked up the courage to start counseling. Most importantly, at the age of 30, I found strength in being vulnerable. And now it is my mission to bring these lessons to my community – and all communities who see mental health as a topic for the weak.

Now, navigating mental health services as a Black man is a whole different battleground. The mistrust towards the system within the Black community is not unfounded. It's rooted in historical transgressions, systemic racial biases, and lack of cultural sensitivity in healthcare. While the system may discriminate, mental illness adheres to equal opportunity. Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other designation you can think of, mental health issues can impact your life. Awareness and acknowledgment are the first steps towards change. We need to break down the barriers of stigma, one conversation at a time. We must advocate for better cultural competence in healthcare, ensuring our community is treated with the understanding and respect we deserve.

As for the system, change is on the horizon. The struggles are evident, and the call for action has never been more significant. There is a growing awareness about mental health issues among us, and an increasing number of Black mental health professionals (and other races excited to learn how to better serve our community) are stepping up to the plate. We still have a long way to go, but the journey is beyond worthwhile.  

As I continue my personal path to mental wellness and professional path to systems change, I hope to inspire others to break their silence and work up the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and heal. The only thing I ask in return is to reach back and bring someone else along with you. In the same way we unite in the face of our collective struggles, let’s unite on our journey to collective healing.

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