Therapy for Black men: Conversations about mental health moving beyond the barbershop

Willie Hannah, left, and community organizer Maress Scott, right, looks on while Dr. S. Kent Butler (center), president of the American Counseling Association, leads a group of men in a conversation about mental health at the Central Station Barbershop & Grooming in St. Petersburg, part of the 2021 Healing While Black summit. Octavio Jones | WUSF Public Media



Editor’s note: This story is part of a local journalism collaboration about the impacts of mental health on Black Floridians and how they are facing a variety of challenges.


Dr. S. Kent Butler, a professor of counselor education at the University of Central Florida, has become a key figure among experts speaking on Black mental health around the country. He’s often led conversations with other Black men about the obstacles they face, including at the Healing While Black conference held this year in St. Petersburg from July 28-31.

Butler, who just completed his term as president of the American Counseling Association, said when entering the counseling field, he didn’t realize that he would be called to help Black males. He recently spoke with WUSF’s Octavio Jones, where he said he discovered a need to help educate counselors in the profession about supporting Black males.

WUSF: What made you become a counselor?

Butler: I started working in a middle school as a school counselor. And that’s when the drive really, really set in to help Black males to kind of come to grips with who they were, as individuals raise their self-esteem, and do things that were really supportive and help them in their development, their growth.

I knew that they had promise, but at the same time, I was blaming them for their own situation. I was one of “them people,” I went in, and I was like, “Well, you could do better; you could pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you really tried.” But I was using my lens, things that I’ve gone through, having a stable household, coming from a household where my parents stayed together until they passed away, right? I didn’t recognize that everybody didn’t have that foundation.

WUSF: Where does mental health take a turn for students of color in school, and why?

Butler: I would rather work with individuals, especially young Black men who are in middle school, because I think those are the make-it-or-break-it years. That’s the time when you can kind of help them to find out who they are; they are kind of going through that adolescent developmental thing that’s going on there.

Dr. S. Kent Butler, president of the American Counseling Association, looks on while meeting with a group of men in a conversation about Black mental health at the Central Station Barbershop & Grooming in St. Petersburg, part of the 2021 Healing While Black summit. Octavio Jones | WUSF Public Media

And I think that once they are secure in who they are at that age level, then they’ll have a trajectory of doing good for themselves. They’ll do well in high school; they’ll do well beyond that. And not everybody has to go to college, right? But they have the mindset to be able to be secure and who they are as an individual.

 WUSF: Why Black men often feel they’re under a constant microscope?

Butler: We have to be cognizant of what life is throwing at us. At the same time, we have to show up in a way that we can be seen and heard and not demonized or are seen as a threat. You know…what it’s like to be a Black man these days in society. And what’s goes on, because of someone’s either ignorance or hatred or whatever about people who are different from them or look different from them.

It really hit home when the person had the manifesto and all this other stuff and went into Buffalo and specifically targeted Black people in the community. And, you know, I’m not saying that it has not happened in the past, and all these other things, but this particular time, it’s like, Wow!

I really think about, almost every time I leave the house, it seems, you know, what my safety is. It used to be about police and being pulled over. And now it’s like you can be anywhere minding your business. And you don’t have control over that, in terms of somebody trying to harm you or, or harm, people who look like you.

Knowing that that is occurring, and then knowing that there’s a target on my back as a Black male. I think about that. And that’s another added stress.

WUSF: How are Black men often perceived in the community? Often, they are labeled with stereotypes. How can we break down these barriers?

Butler: I talk a lot about Continuous Traumatic Stress disorder. And it is very much similar to PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Constantly, you’re under this telescope. And then, on top of that, you got people who don’t have to worry about that at all. They never have to concern themselves with where they go, how they show up, anything, right.

But as a Black male, I am constantly thinking about that. Where am I going to stand? Who am I going to be with? How am I paying attention? You know, I think we joke sometimes about the fact that we walk into these locations, and we scope out where the exits are, right?

When I go out with other Black men, and we’re jockeying for the seat. And I think every Black man knows that, right? We, you know, what seat are you going to sit in because you want to be able to see what’s going on around you. Not because you are doing something nefarious, but because you want to be sure that you’re safe in that environment.

WUSF: How is counseling different from seeking support from friends or family?

Butler: How I see counseling is for clarity: Ok, I need to make a decision. I need to get on with my life about this. I’m just not able to come to any type of understanding of what I need to do, so let me go talk it out with somebody. I don’t really want to talk about it with my wife; I can’t talk about it with my 10-year-old. I need to talk with somebody who can bounce things off me, standing not in judgment of me, and really just helps me to work through it in my own way.

Because the counselor is not telling me what to do, the counselor — if they’re doing their job right — is helping me explore things that I have not really put that type of energy into before.

WUSF: Have things changed at all? Or are things still the same?

Butler: I think that in the Black community, that is changing, right. We talk about Black men not going to counseling and not wanting to talk. We do talk about it in the barbershop, but now maybe our conversation changes and shifts a little bit more.

In situations, we (Black men) sometimes harm ourselves and stay in this position of us bickering and doing these things against one another. And on top of them doing the same thing to us. And you wonder why there’s a shortage of African-American males, and why they’re all incarcerated, and all this other stuff.

WUSF: Can Black men continue to be at the forefront of creating a positive outlook or sense of hope within our communities?

We can start to talk and be smart, and maybe we need to shift and change this narrative and start really doing the things that are necessary so that we build ourselves up, build up our community, and really take force.

I think that there are those who are in the dominant culture who love the fact that we are not together and working together to change that because there’s force in numbers; there’s change with numbers, right? But if we can’t organize and get it together, as Black men, folks who are in positions of power, like, “Hey, let’s continue doing what we do.”

Octavio Jones is a multimedia reporter with WUSF Public Media. This story is part of a collaboration with The Florida Courier, The Weekly Challenger, RoyalTee Magazine and WUSF Public Media. It also is a part of the national America Amplified community engagement initiative, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Crisis resources:

  • If you are or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 988.
  • To connect with a trained crisis counselor and receive free 24/7 crisis support through text message, text NAMI to 741-741.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)

The following are resources focused on addressing mental health care for Black males:

Black Americans face a complex set of challenges as they try to maintain their mental health. On top of universal issues like depression, stigma and economic stress, they face racism and inequities in the health care system. The Florida Courier, The Weekly Challenger, RoyalTee Magazine and WUSF Public Media created this series to highlight the stories of Black Floridians seeking emotional healing and wellness, and to provide resources for those needing support.

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