The SonRise Project Offers Hope for Black Men and Mental Health

    Everything seemed good at the Lawsons’ house: Mom and Dad enjoyed successful careers while their two teenage sons did well in school. And then, one of the boys began to spiral, ending in a suicide attempt. 

    That distressing season for her family led Kelli Richardson Lawson to found The SonRise Project, which offers hope and help to other families dealing with mental health issues. For while the Lawsons may have felt alone as they tried to help their oldest son, Kyle, they discovered they weren’t: there are a lot of families like them. 

    Rates of mental health issues among Black men are spiking, says Lawson: they are the highest group in terms of incidents of depression, anxiety, and suicide. “Why is that? I think of the trauma that Black men face [and] what they have to deal with on a daily basis… If you’re suppressing that constantly, rather than addressing it, it ultimately will take its toll.” 

    Lawson cites a study of 2,000 men, equally split between Black and white. Both groups described themselves the same way: Smart, confident, funny, kind, a nice person. But things changed when the white men were asked to describe Black men. They used words like athletic, competitive, strong, and a little funny. “But you don’t see ‘smart’ anywhere in the conversation,” says Lawson. “And so over time that actually tends to affect a Black person, their self-confidence, how they start to view themselves.” 

    As a result, Black men’s self-perception declines from high school to college. “Imagine that,” says Lawson. “And if you’re not dealing with that and you don’t have a village of other Black folks telling you you’re amazing, you’re brilliant, you’re smart… If you don’t have that and you have something very opposite to that, it starts to really weigh on your mental health. There are all kinds of data out there to support that Black men need more support right now.” 

    The Lawsons first became aware something wasn’t right in their home when Kyle entered high school as a straight-A student and a swimming star. Then his grades began to fall, he lost interest in sports, and he began using marijuana. “We didn’t really see the signs of depression, anxiety, any of those things,” Lawson admits. “And so, we went through a challenging period of us trying to change him, us trying to make him be someone that he wasn’t… The more you push, the more they pull.” 

    When they ended up at the hospital in 2020 after Kyle tried to take his life, “we were both so dumbfounded, shocked… I remember feeling very alone and very afraid for my child and not knowing what to do and where to turn, and I realized that there was not a place to go and to talk and to open up and to share and to learn.” 

    Facing the stigma 

    The SonRise Project ( describes itself as “a safe space for parents and teens to share, learn and cope.” Central to the initiative is a weekly Sonrise Sunday podcast in which Lawson talks with everyone from professionals to other parents to provide information, insight and encouragement. One online reviewer has applauded Lawson for having “turned her challenging journey as a parent into a powerful community conversation on how to support teens, especially Black males,” calling the podcasts “such a gift to the village of parents raising our sons and daughters, breaking down stigmas so we can lift each other.” 

    Among those Lawson has spoken with are life coach and consultant Sharon Green (“Parenting Through Trauma”), psychologist Dr. Kendell Jasper (“Raising Boys to Be Men”) and marriage and family therapist Carter Drew (“Don’t Give Your Kids the Silver Platter Life”). 

    In establishing The SonRise Project, Lawson has drawn on her long professional expertise. Now CEO of JOY Collective, a Black- and woman-owned marketing agency, her Emmy Award-winning career includes over a decade as an executive vice president at BET, where husband Keith is senior vice president of brand solutions. 

    In addition to educating, the Sonrise Sunday podcasts aim to simply model that it’s OK to talk about all this. “Mental illness has such a stigma in the Black community,” says Lawson. “No one talks about it.” She references her own family: a grandmother with whom “something wasn’t quite right” and others who are bipolar. “In my family, like many Black families, I knew something wasn’t quite right, but it was not a discussion, it was not a conversation.” 

    She first became aware of the kind of help that is available in her late 20s, after going through “a really pretty crazy divorce and needing to work through that.” Yet even that exposure didn’t prepare her for dealing with Kyle’s situation. Part of that was because of the shame and guilt she wrestled with. “I felt like I had done something wrong: I must be a bad mom, a bad parent.” 

    Again, her experience was all too common. She references research that found 63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness. With that sort of attitude being so prevalent, “then we tend to hide it, we tend to not talk about it,” Lawson says. “That’s part of who Black people are, our community.” 

    She welcomes the fact that the issue is beginning to get an airing because of “the alarming rates and the increase in the incidents of suicide and depression and anxiety; the rates are skyrocketing.” Yet recent data says young Black people are half as likely as their white counterparts to say that they need help or to ask for help, she adds. The SonRise website highlights an August 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than one-quarter of young adults in the U.S. had contemplated suicide within a recent 30-day period. 

    Facing the facts 

    There is a family factor to mental health: “If you have a tendency to have bipolar or depression or anxiety in your family, it is in your blood, it’s in your genes. So it’s something to look for, it’s something to be cognizant of, [but] it’s nothing to be ashamed about.” In addition to heredity, she points to history: “We’ve had 400-plus years of trauma in our community, and so that trauma just continues and continues, and we really haven’t dealt with it as a society like we need to.” 

    Lawson speaks openly about her ADD (attention deficit disorder). “I’m very clear I have ADD, and so I have medicine. When I take it, I do well; I’m able to focus. When I don’t, I can see the difference, but there’s no shame in that anymore.” 

    This sort of honesty is part of the reason for the impact The SonRise Project has made. The Lawsons have been willing not only to be open about the struggles they have gone through but admit their own mistakes along the way. They don’t sugarcoat anything. 

    “At the end of the day, there was really nothing wrong with our child,” she says. “He just wanted to be a child. He wanted to experience things as a teenager, and we focused on trying to force him into a space that he didn’t want to be in. 

    “I think the biggest challenge we have, particularly as Black parents, is we don’t learn to just listen, really just to listen to our kids, because we have these preconceived notions of what they should be and what they should be doing,” Lawson says. She and her husband “didn’t listen” when Kyle said he didn’t want to swim anymore, but he wanted to play basketball. “We should have said, ‘OK, cool,’” she says. “He was a great basketball player, but we pretty much forced him to stay down this path that we had designed for him… we just kept pushing, pushing, pushing.” 

    That kind of parental pressure stems partly from fear for young Black men who “we just want to come back home” when they walk out the door. “I don’t parent out of fear anymore,” she says. “I parent out of faith that he’s going to be fine and [son] Kris is going to be fine, and God’s got them.” 

    As the name hints, faith is an integral part of The SonRise Project. “I am a very deep believer in God, and I think about the ultimate Son in Jesus,” Lawson explains. “I also know that no matter how dark times get, the sun always rises. And so the spirit and the intention of SonRise is to say, even in our darkest hours, even in our most painful spaces, if we can hold on and we can share love with one another, the sun always rises, and there’s always a new day. There’s always a new opportunity for possibility.” 

    Lawson doesn’t pretend to have all the answers now, but she feels she at least knows what the critical questions are. She describes the last three years as “a journey of major transformation” in which she and Keith have grown in their understanding of the issue and their relationship. 

    “We really support each other, and there’s no blame,” she says. “There’s no shame. We’re in this together, and we talk way more now than we ever have in the past. We communicate with each other way more than we ever used to.” They used to be “calendar keepers,” she says, focused on who needed to be where at what time. “Now, we actually talk about what’s going on, and we communicate, and the boys know that we’re a team.” 

    When one of their sons comes to her asking if they can do something, these days, “I’ll say, ‘Let me talk to Dad first, and I’ll get back to you.’ It’s a very different approach than it used to be. There have been some moments that have been hard, but ultimately we support each other, and the boys know we love them more than anything.” 

    Facing the needs 

    As more people open up about their struggles and needs, The SonRise Project is expanding. A new Survivor Stories series will feature weekly live calls focused specifically on young men. The website also offers other resources—books and video links—and a list of therapists. 

    The need outstrips the response: “The medical situation is problematic right now. We have a lot of work to do.” Lawson points to the fact that only 4% of psychiatrists are Black. “When you’re looking for a doctor, especially a therapist, you want someone that looks like you. And we don’t have them out there in a big way. We need to do work to get people in this field and to be interested in the field, and we need better training.” 

    Lawson speaks of personally experiencing that. “We had some crises where it was a little crazy in my house, and I was afraid to call the police because I know they’re not trained in this space the way they should be,” she says. “We’ve had moments where there’s been, like, a psychotic episode: I don’t call the police because I know they’re not trained. Many times, our medical professionals, especially in certain neighborhoods, are not trained properly to deal with our boys.” 

    With what she knows now, Lawson would have handled her family’s crisis time differently. “If I could get the time back, I would have focused on conversation and communication around why the behaviors were happening, not punishment,” she reflects. “Really understanding what’s going on. I would’ve worked on conversation. I would’ve worked on the relationship.” To come through something like that successfully, those who are struggling need to know “that you love them no matter what and that you’re there no matter what.” 

    After her experiences and education of the last few years, what would Lawson want to say to any young Black men reading this article? She quotes a line from the Jay-Z song “Kill Jay-Z” off his 4:44 album: “You can’t heal what you never reveal.” “Know that you are incredible,” she follows with. “Know that you’re a king, know that you’re special, you’re brilliant, you’re amazing. 

    “And yet also know that it’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling quite right.’ It’s OK to reveal how you’re really feeling so that you actually can heal. Being OK with being vulnerable, being OK to cry, knowing that it’s OK to show your emotions—that is how we’re going to heal ourselves as Black men and our overarching community.” 


    Drawing from her family’s experience, Kelli Richardson Lawson offers some telltale signs that all may not be well with your children, and it’s time to find some outside help. 

    LOSING INTEREST. They no longer pursue the things that they used to love doing. 

    LOCKING AWAY. “Silent and solo,” Lawson says— they hide away by themselves all the time, and it’s dark in their room. 

    SHUTTING OUT. Do they have their AirPods in all the time, even when they’re around other people, indicating they don’t want to engage with anyone? 

    SLIPPING GRADES. They are no longer motivated to make an effort. 

    GETTING RIPE. Their hygiene starts to suffer; they go without showering or wearing fresh clothes. 

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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