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From therapy to yoga, resources popping up to redefine Black mental health

Sudan Green does yoga in West Philadelphia park
Posted at 8:20 AM, Jan 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-04 11:20:07-05

PHILADELPHIA — Stigma, lack of access, and a lack of trust are all factors into why Black Americans – and Black men in particular – are less likely to receive support for mental health.

But some are trying to redefine Black mental health, in their own cities and across the country.

Sudan Green is among them. His redefinition involves yoga.

"Yoga is meant to empty the mind," Green said. "That’s kind of the joy of it.”

On this morning, he practices at a park named for Malcolm X, several blocks from his home in West Philadelphia.

“Being Black, your mind is always racing, thinking about things," he said. "Yoga is a time where I don’t have to think.”

All around Green’s home city, murals show Black faces and voices. Nearly all show struggle, or perseverance through struggle. Put together, they show never-ending burden.

“There’s no longer, like, ‘I have to tell you a story for you to understand this,'" he said. "It’s like, ‘Just go look at everything. Go look at Black trauma. Go look at Black mental health statistics.’”

Those statistics are staggering. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services found Black Americans were half as likely as white Americans to receive mental health services but more likely to express feelings of sadness - and nearly twice as likely to claim, in life, that “everything is an effort.” Black men reached out for help far less than Black women but were four times as likely to commit suicide.

"Witnessing oppression has an impact on everybody," said Dr. Howard Stevenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “If there’s been a police shooting in a neighborhood, we know that for the next several months, a lot of people in that community, in that larger neighborhood, will experience trauma.”

Black men who do seek help learn they’re barely represented among mental health professionals.

“A lot of people don’t want somebody they also see as their aggressor out in the world as being their therapist," Green said. “On the other hand, you have people in your community like, ‘You don’t really need therapy. It’s not for you. There’s a lot against Black men trying to seek help.’”

Green believes in therapy. He believes in yoga and meditation. Last summer, the death of George Floyd led millions to protest. In Philadelphia, it led him to start a group called Spirits Up. They held yoga sessions in public spaces and brought out hundreds of Black Philadelphians, including to that park named for Malcolm X. Over the last 18 months, in-person and online, Green and Spirits Up have built a following.

“It's definitely wellness as protest," he said. “We were at our worst. So, we needed something to put us at our best.”

Today, resources are growing. A Baltimore man started the Black Male Yoga Initiative. Groups like Therapy for Black Men and Black Men Heal list therapists of color in cities across America. Green is evaluating the next steps for Spirits Up, never overlooking its value on the community.

“The sheer reflection of seeing somebody who looks like you doing something," Green said, "is really important.”