Mental Health, Healing and Wholeness for Black Boys

Mar 7, 2023 8:30:00 AM


Advocating for better mental healthcare for Black men and boys is always on the top of Emmanuel Jackson’s mind. As a college counselor at Muchin College Prep in Chicago and as a Black man, he often sees his Black male scholars struggle much in the same way he did growing up.

“I knew I had to play my role and be a voice for our Black male scholars, particularly because I am a Black male and have been a Black male scholar in the past,” Jackson said.  “It’s tough. They’ve been through a lot. They’re gonna continue to go through a lot.”

For him, getting mental healthcare and community support was a game changer. Now, he wants the same for his boys.

“We [educators] wanna make sure that, as they go through these obstacles, they are getting the support that they need and that they have healthy and constructive ways to express themselves,” Jackson said.

These are the thoughts and feelings that propelled Jackson to jump on the Black Boys Collaborative group last spring. He took the lead with his fellow educators, Yolanda Hanna and Kameshia Ward from Hansberry College Prep, to create a new event for all our campuses at Noble Schools [in Chicago] this year — “Black Boys Heal: See Me, Hear Me.”

Providing Safe Places to Discuss Mental Health

The focus of the events is to provide space and resources for our Black boys to talk about mental health and how they can access care. The events kicked off in February and will run through March. For this event, Jackson and his other collaborators partnered with a local non-profit organization – The CornerStore Chicago.

The CornerStore is a non-profit focused on helping youth access culturally-relevant and empowering mental healthcare, led and founded by Michelle Thompkins.

During the event, Thompkins and her colleague, PJ Walker, will be engaging in discussion with our boys around several topics. They’ll be teaching about the importance of mental health and inviting students to journal and practice mindfulness. They’re also bringing in several Black male guest speakers from a multitude of backgrounds from clinicians to community organizers to talk with our boys about mental health.

“The guests are brought in with the intention to highlight and celebrate Black men who create safe spaces for Black men/boys and their wellness,” Thompkins said. “Based on their expertise and experiences as Black men, they support the conversation.”

Facilitating Healing through Music and Culture

The cornerstone of Black Boys Heal is rooted in music and culture.

“A bulk of our time will be spent in our “See Me, Hear Me” activity, which is dedicated to discussing how the students see and hear themselves as well as other Black men in the community,” Thompkins said. “We then listen and look at multimedia clips, featuring some of the hottest rappers and thought leaders to discuss: What are some of the things that we see them navigating? What is some of the pain that they’re experiencing? What are they trying to tell us about their experience?”

Thompkins and Walker are showing song clips ranging from Lil Durk to Kendrick Lamar as well as TED Talks and podcast clips. Both staff and students are invited to participate. Thus far, our boys have been rapping along with the songs, and along with attending staff, engaging in deep discussion around the lyrics and what it meant to them.

“When I came into the session, I was a little down,” RJ, a student at DRW, said, “But when y’all got to discussing about how we should talk to each other and communicate how we’re feeling and then we all got to play the songs, we connected. I really looked into the lyrics.”

Why We’re Focusing on Mental Health

Like Jackson said, our Black boys have been through a lot. Every day, they deal with the mental, physical and socioeconomic burdens of systemic racism and discrimination. Some of our Black boys experience poverty and food and housing insecurity. Many have witnessed violence in their communities. All of them carry the heavy weight of what society says about them.

“Historically, Black male bodies have been a target or seen as a threat or as something other than who they are,” Thompkins said. “I’ve heard teachers, admin and even clinicians using labels and language that painted children from communities that I come from, or from people who look like me, as though they were deviant, thug and criminals before they had even finished graduating from high school.”

Our Black boys continue to bring brilliance, innovation and joy into our spaces despite all of these obstacles that they face. However, their invisible struggle with mental health has often remained unseen and unaddressed.

The stigma and accessibility of mental healthcare for the Black community, especially for men, makes it difficult for our boys to develop healthy coping skills and find much-needed community support to take care of their mental health.

“It is telling in our current status right now as a community just how much our Black men and our Black boys need the additional support and safe space,” Thompkins said.

At Noble, we’ve seen how this is impacting our boys. We’ve seen it in their grades, in their actions, and in their disengagement with school. We knew that addressing mental health was an essential part of our mission to improve the school experience for our Black boys.

“I just want our scholars to have strong strategies to cope and resources,” Jackson said. “I’m hoping that Noble as an organization will continue to have resources and bring supports to the school. And not only just bring supports, but that our scholars will want to take advantage of those support systems. And that, over time, we see better outcomes for our Black students both in GPA, in culture and relationship building. That’s my main goal and focus.”

Noble Schools was grateful to be able to connect with Thompkins and The CornerStore to bring in some of those strong supports – and hopefully ones that will continue to grow at our campuses.

“My hope is that CornerStore continues to work with Noble and continues to support the innovation and the opportunities that come when we’re thinking about mental health and healing, especially on a community level,” Thompkins said.

About The CornerStore Chicago

Through her studies and intentional, collaborative work in the community, Thompkins saw a huge lack of resources for people of color, especially for youth, in the mental health field. This is what ultimately led her to create The CornerStore.

“For me, I really wanted to think about how I could take a field like mental health that wasn’t originally intended for people of color and create a safe environment for us – to say that mental health and healing is for us and there are safe ways that we can have this conversation,” Thompkins said. 

Her choice of the name for The CornerStore stemmed from this thought – she wanted mental health to feel as comfortable and accessible as the cornerstores that are staples in Chicago neighborhoods.

“I wanted to think about how I could create a safe space for youth where they felt like they belonged and that felt familiar. That’s what mental health and healing should look like,” Thompkins said.

She started by sitting down with schools and holding forums in 2018. She talked to teachers and families about how they would want a mental health organization to better support their students. From those talks, she built The CornerStore’s approach to mental health: bringing in culturally-relevant resources and healthy creative outlets to help youth heal and make decisions to better their lives.

“There was an emerging crisis where I felt like we really needed to redefine how we could meet our youth we’re they’re at,” Thompkins said about the rising rate of suicide for youth in 2018, “So the way that we connect with youth is by using culture.” 

Thompkins says she tries to understand what students are interested in and then curates her mental health conversations to each unique student or school community – like the See Me, Hear Me activity she’s using in Noble schools. 

She says she also tries to bring back some of the cultural and ancestral healing practices that the Black community has used for centuries. She also spoke on how her programming emphasizes the importance and need of community.

“For a lot of the students that I engage with, it’s very uncomfortable to sit in a one-on-one experience. But when you’re with other people who have a similar background to you or who understand what you’re going through, it makes that healing conversation a little bit easier,” Thompkins said.

Since starting the organization in 2018, Thompkins and her colleagues at The CornerStore have worked with about 30 schools and over 75 other like-minded organizations in Chicago. Their main goal, she says, is to help youth manifest their dreams and activate the resources they have at hand to reach them – which ultimately leads to empowerment.

“My goal is to remind the students to never forget their ‘map’ – never forget what they want their life to look like, never forget what healing, mental health and wholeness looks like for them,” Thompkins said.

This piece original appeared on the Noble Schools website

Mads Oliver

Mads Oliver (they/them) is a passionate writer and advocate for educational equity, racial justice, disability justice and trans rights. Over the years, they have worked with several nonprofits in various roles, including serving as a mentor for queer youth and co-founding a queer-affirming choir in Spokane, Washington. Mads is part of the Communications Team at Noble Schools, a public charter school network in Chicago.

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