Black communities in America are suffering from a mental health crisis. 46 million people identify themselves as either Black or African American, and over 16 percent of them have reported having a mental illness. (According to Mental Health America).
A history of oppression coupled with systemic racism has been a dire reality for African Americans – ever since the arrival of the first colonizers in America. Many forms of racial prejudice permeate the society we live in today. Healthcare, education, law enforcement, and the justice system – all are tainted with this systemic rot. Everyday racism coupled with complex social dynamics create several hurdles to mental health care access within Black communities.
The problem is complex. But one path to moving forward is telling stories that highlight how people can overcome mental illnesses and lead rich and fulfilling lives. One story that is worth repeating is that of Lenard McKelvey aka Charlamagne Tha God. Born and raised in Monck’s Corner in South Carolina, his rise to fame has been nothing short of spectacular. Known for his syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” two award-winning books, comedy central late-night shows, and podcast “The Brilliant Idiots,” Charlamagne has done it all.
While the world has witnessed his unparalleled rise to stardom – Charlamagne has other ideas for his life’s work. For the past few years, he has whole-heartedly assumed the title of a mental health advocate and is working tirelessly to shift the narrative of Black mental health in America.
Growing up during the golden era of hip hop (the 80s), Charlamagne once confronted a reality similar to thousands of young Black Americans. Drugs, gang violence, systemic racism, and a rising tide of unresolved traumatic events. While there was enough trouble to land him in jail as a teenager, he had bigger plans for his life. From an initial internship at radio station z93 Jamz to co-host of hip hop’s most successful radio show, “The Breakfast Club,” Charlamagne went on to break all professional barriers to success.
Professional success was an important aspect for Charlamagne, but his real battle had always been his mental health. “I was dealing with really bad anxiety my whole life. So 2010, after I got fired from radio for the fourth time and I’m back home living with my mom, I had one of those moments where I was feeling like I was having, like, a massive heart attack again. I pulled over to the side of the road, drank some water, told God – God, I’m going to go to the doctor tomorrow. Went to the doctor. Doctor’s like, your heart is perfectly fine, which I’ve heard a million times, you know?”
“But this is the first time somebody said to me, do you have anxiety? ‘Cause, it sounds like you had a panic attack. And I was like, oh, no, not that I know of. And he was like, are you stressed out about anything? I’m like, hell yeah!”
Charlamagne often uses this story to highlight how countless Black Americans face a similar dilemma. Mental illnesses remain undiagnosed and untreated for years on end. Diagnosed with anxiety and depression himself, the media mogul understands the importance of using his platform to create awareness.
In his book, Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me, he outlines how the stigma surrounding mental health prevents people from finding the right tools to heal. Finding out his father suffered from mental health was a turning point in his life. “He told me: I was on 10 to 12 different medications throughout my life. And I was going to therapy two or three times a week and, 30 years ago I wanted to kill myself. Well, the reason I didn’t was because of you and your older sister.”
Upon learning this, Charlamagne said, “I’m sitting there on the phone like, man, if you had told me this earlier, you know how much trouble you would have saved me?”
Acutely aware of the barriers to mental health treatment, Charlamagne established the Mental Wealth Alliance in 2021. The organization aims to remove stigma surrounding mental health in Black communities and increase the accessibility to treatment. To further this goal, MWA established the Collaborative for Black Mental Wealth, which brings together various organizations with the common objective of raising awareness for mental health issues affecting BIPOC individuals. In partnership with Black-led mental health organizations and specialists, the Alliance aims to raise $100 million in the next five years to remove financial barriers to mental health services.
Beyond the goal of raising awareness, the radio show host also has his sight set on increasing the number of Black practitioners in America. Because less than 2 percent of American Psychological Association members are Black or African American, many community members believe that mental health care practitioners are not culturally competent enough to treat their specific issues.
To address this Charlamagne has an idea. “We want to train the next generation of psychiatrists and therapists, we want to be able to provide them with scholarships and money to where they can get their certification, especially Black and brown people because I feel like we need more…culturally competent psychiatrists and therapists in that field,” he says.
Beyond his organized efforts to improve Black mental health, Charlamagne encourages self-care and wellness on a personal level. Simple practices like meditation, if done correctly and over a period of time, can drastically improve mental health. “Meditation was something that I never could do,” he said. “I could never quiet my brain enough to get into meditation, but I got into it at the end of 2020…I think with the pandemic, just being at home, and being forced to be still, helped a lot of us to understand what quiet time really looks like and what peace really looks like.”
While the world recovers from a pandemic and is teetering on the edge of a recession, awareness of mental health issues is of paramount importance – even more so for underserved communities. Over the last few years, Charlamagne has dedicated himself to the cause. He aims to help people, especially those in the Black community, face the stigma surrounding mental health illness so they can overcome their challenges and lead more fulfilling lives.