Why Good Mental Health Matters

For counselor and university professor Dr. Michael Hannon, the fact that Juneteenth and Father’s Day were celebrated on the same day this year (June 19) was “an awesome coincidence.”

The shared date provided an opportunity to honor Black fathers “who are doing their best to protect, provide and prepare their families for success, while also acknowledging the spirit and the resilience and the pursuit of freedom among Black people in this country,” he told The New York Times.

He spoke with the newspaper when it spotlighted Black Fathering and Mental Health; Black Fathers’ Narratives on Raising Their Children Across the Family Life Cycle. He edited the book of essays by mental health professionals that was released to a warm reception earlier this year.

The first book of its kind to spotlight the mental health issues faced by Black fathers was applauded by one reviewer for having “broken new ground with a unique and timely contribution to the literature of Black fathering and anti-racism.”

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, Hannon is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. In addition to his role there, Hannon is part of the counseling team at the Center for MARCUS (Mastering and Refining Children’s Unique Skills) in Trenton, New Jersey.

Hannon spoke with WayMaker founder and WayMaker Journal publisher Louis Carr about mental health issues and the Black community. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WJ: What is the state of Black men in America today?

MH: That’s a big, big question. A lot depends on the measure we use to determine our health and well-being. I think, unfortunately, Black men are subject to experiences and forces that stand in the way of achieving and experiencing optimal health and wellness. Things like racism, things like bias, police violence.

What I want to celebrate, though, is that in spite of things like that, we are more committed now than ever to seeing us become the best versions of ourselves as possible. I’m witnessing Black men acknowledge the importance of not just their physical health and wellness, but also take intentional and unapologetic steps toward fostering their mental and emotional health and wellness. And so I think the prognosis looks good and it continues to look better as we look forward.

WJ: What would you say are the top three concerns that Black men in this country have today?

MH: In no particular order, I would respectfully submit one is gainful and meaningful career opportunities… Black men and boys are socialized to be financial providers when they become adults in some way, shape or form. And if Black men and boys don’t believe that they have a pathway toward healthy, congruent and meaningful career opportunities, then their mental health will be at risk.

Another need is for acceptance of diverse presentations of masculinity, when all Black men have the freedom to express themselves in ways that they feel most congruent—meaning there’s no discrepancy with what I say versus how I feel. I was raised and socialized to believe that there is one version of Black masculinity that is heterosexual, a healthy aggression—competitive may be a better way to put that—and there are some men who don’t express their masculinity that way. And it’s OK.

And maybe the third is the ability to be mentored and coached and/or fathered. If Black boys and men are in community with other Black men who are able to teach, inform, instruct support, mentor, father, we’re better as a result. I’ve been privileged, over the course of my life, to contribute to and benefit from healthy relationships with other, primarily Black, men and those I believe pay dividends, no matter what the form is.

WJ: How do we start to have conversations about the very sensitive subject of Black-on-Black crime?

MH: Maybe the first step, and I say this with all the humility that I can muster, has to be an acknowledgement that violence is a symptom of something far greater… an outward expression of [something] I haven’t found an adequate level of support to deal with. There’s enough research that tells us that violence, many times, is predicted by unemployment. We have to consider what leads to Black-on-Black crime.

Another thing obviously is learning, practicing and being mentored in the skills of de-escalation and healthier conflict resolution. We have been socialized for a variety of reasons to not tolerate disrespect and in some ways it’s protective. I can’t tolerate that because if I allow someone to do this to me, it may make me at risk for somebody else doing it to me or doing it to me again and again.

I’m not even suggesting the violence takes place physically all the time. Sometimes there’s emotional violence… There is no Band-Aid. It’s a very complex issue that I definitely don’t want to reduce to three bullet points.

Black men are subject to experiences and forces that stand in the way of achieving and experiencing optimal health and wellness.

WJ: We have more jobs than people out there right now. How do we get that across to our community?

MH: That question is best answered in the same way similar questions are answered when it comes to those in position who have resources versus those who may not have access to resources (jobs, information, resources, transportation and things like that). We go and deliver; we don’t wait for folks to come to us.

As an example, the counseling profession has long acknowledged the challenge of providing mental health services to Black and brown communities. What we found in recent years, maybe in the last generation, is that in particularly houses of worship—churches, mosques, synagogues—that mental health professionals are going to the spaces where they know people are and not waiting for the people to come to the spaces where they are.

Again, I don’t want to oversimplify this, but it makes some sense to me that if there are jobs that are at the downtown post office and things like that, but I have got issues with trans- portation, then it may be worthwhile for the post office to come to my community and make known the opportunities that are available. A bunch of industries and trades have positioned and sent the message that Black folks aren’t welcome there. So there has to be a retooling of the message and the delivery model.

WJ: How would you answer the people who ask, when is the responsibility and accountability going to fall on some of those people who may be committing these crimes?

MH: To use a personal anecdote, I have a nephew who died a violent death. He was shot and killed in Atlanta in 2016. He generally had access to resources—maybe not to the extent that other people do, but he had a family who loved him—and he had access to a quality education for the most part, if not for the entirety of his K-12 experience. He also made some decisions, I imagine, if he could do again, he wouldn’t make.

Who bears responsibility for him making those decisions that may have ultimately led to his death? He has to be responsible for that in some ways, but he does not live in a vacuum. None of us live in a vacuum. And so I believe [we have to] chip away at these generational issues that we know have existed in communities. I can’t underscore [enough] the value of having spaces where children and people are loved unconditionally.

What does it mean to come up in a space where I can see active love being demonstrated to other Black people without apology, that I can see myself in the adults that are in my life and who are employed in ways that don’t place them at risk for being arrested, in relationships that aren’t as prone to violence, domestic violence or things like that?

What does it mean to have Black teachers? What does it mean to go to a church or a mosque and have Black clergy? I can’t underscore [enough] the value and the influence of role models who give me some sense of hope beyond my 16th or 18th birthday. I need to be able to see what it is I might be able to accomplish or experience or achieve, in order to be inspired to do something differently. I don’t know how and why we’ve become desensitized except to say that we have to relearn how to love each other.

WJ: We’ve all seen how negative images in the media have impacted behavior. Do you believe that the opposite is possible, that good behavior, responsible behavior, love—whether it’s coming from Black families, Black churches, Black community organizations—can change how people think, what they do and how they live?

MH: The short answer is yes, I believe that wholeheartedly. I think all of us—Black, white and everybody in between, but particularly we are talking about Black people—have the capacity to change; community, generationally.

For folks who have a Christian orientation, we talk about generational curses, and if there’s any semblance of truth to something like a generational curse, I’m here to acknowledge that Black people’s experience in this country and those optics that we see played out for our detriment by certain news organizations and certain forms of media, that’s a form of an intentional generational curse: We intend to make you feel so poorly about yourself and each other that you will be more likely to turn on each other than to address or to express righteous anger against the system that has certainly influenced the space you occupy.

It’s almost like when you see two athletes tussling on a field and the referee isn’t looking. Then the one retaliates when the ref is looking and he gets punished because he got caught, but the ref didn’t see the antecedent. I think it’s prudent to acknowledge the antecedent of intentional structural and historical racism on the plight of Black people and to not do that is, one, dangerous and for many of us who get the opportunity to study it, is intellectually lazy and borderline unethical… I don’t mean to gloss over some of the traumatic and problematic things that we experience in our communities, but… It’s like being mad at a child for engaging in behavior when children act out; that’s just what they do, especially under adverse conditions.

WJ: From all your research in the Black community, what should we be doing?

MH: I’ve been inspired to see more and more Black and brown people prioritize their mental health. If there’s any action step I would suggest any of your readers to take, if they’ve not done this so far, is to leverage the mental health resources in their community—[to know] that going to see a mental health professional, a social worker, a counselor, a psychologist does not require a crisis. It requires the desire for change; that’s it.

If any one of us is experiencing an impediment to our success—in the job, in a relationship, in school or any other space that we occupy—there are resources that can put you in contact with Black and brown mental health professionals who will understand and affirm your cultural and social location and its influence on your mental health and well-being. I can’t underscore enough the value of going to see a good Black therapist to help address your mental health needs, not solely in crisis, but for optimal functioning, so you can meet the goals that you set before yourself.

Help is at hand

Looking for someone to speak with about your mental health? Here are some helpful resources for you:

Counselors for Social Justice: a professional counseling organization dedicated to advocating for social justice which has developed a national directory of clinicians of color.

Dial 988: the new national mental health emergency hotline provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Psychology Today: allows users to find mental health professionals by zip code, city, state or region.

Therapy for Black Girls: a site with a similar function of Psychology Today but focused on identifying therapists for Black girls and women.