Lorenzo's National Movement is Changing Conversations Around Mental Health
I am mentally real because: it is a part of my every day and is an ongoing success for me.
"FOR SOME OF US, YOU NEED TO BE BEATEN, BRUISED OR KILLED TO "BE SOMEONE." THIS IS A TRAUMA RESPONSE. CULTURALLY, IT'S SEEN IN A LOT OF WAYS IN OUR COMMUNITY LIKE INCARCERATION AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE. WHY CAN'T WE AS BLACK PEOPLE LIVE AND MAKE IT JOYFULLY? WHY DO WE NEED TO STRUGGLE? ... YOU MIGHT MAKE IT BUT YOUR HEART WON'T."
Your organization, The Confess Project, has been featured on many platforms like The Today Show, CNN and Roc Nation for its innovative efforts to foster healing for boys and men of color. What inspired you to dedicate yourself to this cause?
I wanted to help folks that are trying to self-improve and to better the circumstances of people. Also, my own life. A lot of my family was ignorant about mental health and being healthy. My family is from the rural South and living in different degrees of poverty. Nobody really knew that depression ran in the family so I was unaware. I wasn't able to be there for myself when I was younger so I want to show others that they can be self-aware.
You have spoken at length about generational trauma among African-Americans. Can you elaborate on that?
In my own family, my grandmother was born to a slave owner because her mother was raped. My great grandfather is a white rapist. This was never unpacked in my family. When you think about ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, rape crisis is one that can do serious damage to someone's body, behaviors and psyche. A lot of our personal stories as African-Americans stem from trauma like this. I also had uncles locked up and aunties with substance abuse issues. This explains why a lot of my family didn't get life insurance, jobs, an education or pursue promising careers because trauma doesn't let you see that far into the future. A lot of our circumstances are tied to trauma. Trauma keeps us from striving to better ourselves.
That is very powerful insight and reminds me of the post-traumatic slave syndrome theory presented by Dr. Joy DeGruy. Overall, what experiences to you believe are unique for Black boys and men in this racist country?
The narrative of being black in America and race in itself makes for a unique experience for us. The reputation of being Black and the racial biases against Black people affect us. Media representation and the internet play a big part in why we can't be the best we can be. In fact, The Confess Project's partnership with Gillette seeks to challenge historic and toxic concepts of masculinity. Our experience of slavery for over 400 years is a big part of how we see ourselves. A lot of us don't understand the depth of how slavery affects us on a micro and macro level. It affects our relationships and why some of us have lots of children, don't trust our mothers, have PTSD and don't have land or money. Society doesn't understand as a whole. People don't like to talk about historic issues like slavery. But, you need to talk about these uncomfortable topics.
What messages about mental health and Black manhood did you receive growing up in Arkansas?
I didn't really receive any message about mental health growing up. My aunt and uncle were aware of me having it rough because of how my parents lived and how they might be in prison at different times. But, they were ill-equipped to teach me and there is a lot of stigma. To struggle mentally means to have weakness. Back during slavery, you couldn't show any weakness to your master. You always had to play into being strong because showing weakness meant you would get killed. There is a lot of interconnectedness to slavery. As far as messages of manhood, men are supposed to be masculine, bold, aggressive, dominant and hold it down. Like my uncle lived in a racist town of 200 people and that tied into how he raised his family.
There is a significant amount of stigma surrounding mental health in the African-American community. To what extent do you think this stigma hurts the community?
In our community we get told a lot to just “pray about it,” “take it to the altar and to God” and “It's gonna work out.” We're told we're strong and we can make it through anything like my mom and dad dying. No, at some point you need to address the root of your pain and say,“This is traumatic as hell and I need to get help.” Our body takes in the toxins of stress and they can be harmful to us. We're also told that we're crazy if we have mental health issues or talk to someone about them. We just don't do that. You're not supposed to be weak or break. Even in Black frats and sororities, there is a backbone in trauma. These organizations had to fight during segregation and Jim Crow. They had to show face on an all-white campus and learn in an environment that was toxic as hell. Even when they were emotionally broken as hell, they had to be strong. All of this is trauma. Even with hazing, we think it's okay because we go whooped by our masters. Some of us don't know that our families are the product of rape and some of us are ashamed because they do know. Some of us are really hurting in generational trauma.
What advice do you have for Black and Brown boys and men?
It is possible to be healthy and happy no matter what we've been through. Once you know where you have thorns and have awareness of your trauma, you can work from a place of love. Therapy can be a part of the process that allows you to move forward. Like going to jail, going to therapy is doing the time to avoid being incarcerated again. In this case, it is emotional incarceration. The same way I don't want to go back to jail because I want to be there for my daughter, I want to work on my mental health so I can become the best me. We tend to resist what we're not good at so we need to be around healthy folks that want to see us win and around people who are trained to help.
Since communities of color exist within a greater context of systemic racism, what needs to be done in greater society to better support boys and men of color?
We need more clinicians to be able to work with boys and men of color. Clinical language doesn't help us because it tends to trump Black folks that may not know what these words mean. There is also a huge distrust in medical professionals. Think about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment where hundreds of Black men were exploited and many died. We need people like myself that have been through shit and know it from both ends. We need more neighborhood dudes to be advocates. These men are gonna be a big part of the solution. But, they need help, too, because hurt people can't help the hurt. Any advocate needs to heal themselves first to help our community long term.
What would help Black mental health advocates like yourself that have accessible language and experience to better reach boys and men of color?
Black and Brown clinicians and advocates need to know our own history and experiences like the traumas from slavery and the civil rights movement. We need to know these traumas so that we can teach white people how to help us.Those that can show up as an ally can really help to provide a space of healing for our folks. We need whites and allies to have the right heart to talk about these things. But, we need to help ourselves first. Growing up, I could care less about the civil rights movement, Rosa Park, or Booker T. Washington. I was in the streets and chasing ass thinking about what I could do to take care of me. I'm just now understanding my blackness and why it even matters.
What goals do you want to accomplish through The Confess Project?
The work that we do can really have a long-term impact on a community by providing sustainable and trustworthy opportunities for boys and men of color and to those connected to them. Some of my goals are to increase education so they can get meaningful jobs. Health and wellness will help us to see the best version of who we are. We can be strong and really have success but we can't do all this without unpacking trauma through self-work. It can be therapy or support groups but it has to be done. I want people to know they deserve happiness and that they can get these tools even through barbers. I will continue to work with people like employers and barbers to spread mental health literacy and help people to understand Black people experiences. We all need to understand trauma so it doesn't stop Black success.
What are some initial steps that someone can take to start educating themselves about mental health literacy?
You can start by surrounding yourself with people that take a liking to mental health. You can be a part of a digital community that promotes positive mental health and you can do your own credible research on the internet. You can also invest in books like the Big Black Penis which helps make sense of masculinity, white supremacy and colonialism. In this book, it uses the pistol to discuss how a Black man's genitals cause fear in America. I also have a memoir, Jumping Over Life's Hurdles and Staying in the Race, which is also a self-help book to lead people to breakthrough and achieve mental freedom.
I read your memoir and it was very moving. How did almost being incarcerated change your life and do you have any regrets about your early years?
Almost being locked up gave me another perspective on life. Life is promising and if you have another chance, you can use adversity to springboard your future. I didn't live in poverty, so I didn't go through not having lights or food. My guardians were well off. Most people locked up did grow up in poverty, are poorly educated and unemployed. They come from sh-t and have a high rate of recidivism. Historically and systemically they have so much taken way from them. This is why some join gangs in search of love, go to the league and blow their money, or have failed relationships over and over again. They overspend because they didn't have anything growing up. They are living in trauma because they came from broken place. As far as regrets, I don't have any. I wish I had been a little bit wise about what life really looks like and that when you do something it affects your later years whether it's legal stuff or relationships. I wouldn't change anything but I wish I had been more aware.
In your memoir, you discussed being a youth care worker at a juvenile detention center. How did this experience inform you about the challenges boys and men of color are facing in recent years?
Challenges were always really high for them. Like, their families didn't have money to support them or to even visit them. They struggled to love and they struggled to connect with those that look like them. A lot of them thought that they could catch up with everybody in the pen like it was some party in the pen. That's traumatic that your whole family is in the pen. OGs in gangs are just as broken as the young ones and both end up in prison. Trauma and ignorance just keep getting passed down. It was a big thing to make it out of high school in my area and to go to college because it was so chaotic when it shouldn't have been. But, when you do go to college, “you're on that white dude shit” and you get treated like the enemy instead of getting support. In reality, I'm just not trying to get killed. For some of us, you need to be beaten, bruised or killed to "be someone." This is a trauma response. Culturally, it's seen in a lot of ways in our community like incarceration and substance abuse. Why can't we as Black people live and make it joyfully? Why do we need to struggle? Stress is gonna kill you because ACEs cause heart issues and physical illness. So, you might “make it” but your heart won't.
Your life story and life work are both very inspiring. How can our readers get in touch with you?
All of my social media handles are: @lorenzoplewis and my website is www.lorenzoplewis.com.