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News & Events

Q&A: Dr. Alvin Thomas on Black Men’s Mental Health Resources

For information on upcoming discussion group sessions, see the
Facebook page of the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association.

Update: Dr. Thomas spoke with Veronica Rueckert for Badger Talks on this topic and will also
participate in WFAA’s UW Now Livestream on Tuesday, June 16, at 7:00 p.m. (CST).

As COVID-19 took hold in communities across the U.S., disturbing data emerged about the disproportionate toll the disease was taking on people of color. Wisconsin was no exception, with 25 percent of deaths from COVID-19 occurring in Black Wisconsinites (data as of 6/5/20), even though they make up less than 7 percent of the state’s overall population.

Dr. Alvin Thomas, Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and a clinical psychologist specializing in the mental health of men and boys, anticipated how these figures could be adding to the already heavy emotional load Black men carry in America. So in early April, along with several fellow health and well-being experts in Wisconsin, he launched an online mental health discussion group specifically for Black men to share their anxieties in a supportive space and learn research-based tools for managing their health throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The discussion group has been highlighted in Madison365, on WKOW News, and in the Cap Times, and has continued to grow from session to session, partnering with groups like Black Men Run, which has over 50 chapters nationwide, and New York City-based Real Dads Network. Thomas also recently gave a lengthier interview to the Cap Times on the topic of Black men’s well-being and particular risks they face under COVID-19 and as targets of violence by police and others. Below, he expands on the group’s work and its ambitions moving forward.

How did the project get started?

School of Human Ecology Jan. 16, 2020. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Alvin Thomas, Assistant Professor

I had only recently met with Aaron Perry, founder of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, to share our common interest in the mental health of Black men and boys, and how we could elevate the conversation around this issue and support men. Aaron has been helping lead the conversation around Black men’s physical health disparities in Wisconsin and creatively addressing this need, so the expansion to include mental health needs was logical. He had also been talking with other like-minded men like Dr. Jonas Lee, of UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Dr. Logan Edwards, of UW–Whitewater Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Coaching. 

Before we knew it, we had a dream team: a clinical psychologist, a health behavioral expert, a medical doctor, and just as importantly a community leader with deep community connections and a longstanding interest in improving the lives of Black men and boys. The Black Male’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Live Support Group was born, and it specifically addresses the challenges and stresses faced by Black men and boys in Madison first, but now we have seen the reach expand from city to state to country and beyond.

Who is participating? And what are you learning from the conversations?

Black men from across Wisconsin and across the country are attending. We have also seen participants from the Caribbean—namely Saint Lucia (where I am from), Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti—and from Switzerland and the UK. We have also seen women attending, hoping to hear something that they can share with the men and boys in their lives. Persons from other ethnic groups have also been attending or listening to the recordings of these discussions, as allies to learn how to support Black men in the sessions and those in their lives.

The discussions have also hosted guest appearances by community leaders including Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and Regional President of Operations and Chair of the Hospital Board at SSM Health Damond Boatwright. They have provided updates about how Dane County has been responding to the pandemic, shared tips from their own areas of expertise and experience, and also just voiced their support to the brave men in attendance. 

We believe that if one man, one child, one family is helped, then our energies are well spent.

Participants’ questions have run the gamut from parenting during the pandemic, coping as an essential worker, sharing advice and reassurance on how to stay safe, and managing stress, feelings of helplessness, preexisting conditions, and feelings of being overwhelmed. The underlying theme participants communicate is the feeling of anxiety, of being overwhelmed, and then additionally taxed by the intersection of race and racism in the daily story being written about Black men and low-income people during the current pandemic. But the upside is that this conversation is happening and hopefully helps normalize the phenomenon of Black men comfortably talking about their emotions and mental health challenges. We hope these sessions foster the emergence of a new picture of Black men as complete human beings with emotional lives and vulnerabilities, worthy of support.

How do these findings track with or diverge from findings in your broader research?

Several participants have bravely shared their concerns about how to parent and provide for their children through the pandemic. More specifically, Black fathers are working hard to support and shield their families from the stress (e.g., financial, emotional) of the pandemic. In the spirit of protecting and providing for their loved ones, they seek skills, advice, and resources that will help them continue to play those roles even while they themselves feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of forced and sudden adaptation imposed by COVID-19. Many are suffering in silence with their own emotional and mental health struggles. 

My research shows that parents are critical to how resilience and self-efficacy develop in adolescents (i.e., feeling that one can engage in or avoid a behavior). Parents talking to adolescents about specific risks they could face helps protect teens from the negative outcomes of risky behaviors. Fathers in the live support group have sought tips, counsel, and a better understanding of how to talk with their children about COVID-19 and all the changes foisted upon Black families specifically. The literature on parenting has shown that parents who are undergoing significant stress, including but not limited to depression and anxiety, are less emotionally available to contribute to their children’s positive development. It was therefore encouraging to provide guidelines and recommendations to Black men who might not have had other avenues for processing their own mental health questions and their concerns about parenting. We want to believe that fathers are leaving these sessions better informed about how to support themselves and their families through the stresses of COVID-19.

What have been some of the most meaningful outcomes of the project so far? Or feedback you’re getting from participants about what’s most helpful for them?

Probably the most rewarding outcome has been the experience of Black men openly sharing their vulnerability and seeking help. The feeling of community that quickly shows up during these discussions is quite the phenomenon to behold. The panelists and guests speak with genuine care and empathy for the participants and spend careful thought exploring each question from a variety of angles, with the intent of hearing the stories behind the questions and promoting the wellbeing of all participants. 

The conversations are supportive, honest and anonymous for participants. Sometimes participants will leave feedback, like the father in New Orleans who wrote that after I had encouraged the men on the call to not let a day go by when they are unaware of how their children are doing emotionally, that he felt compelled to do just that with his son, and he has committed to make this a practice going forward. J.P., a Madison entrepreneur and weekly attendee, shared with the group that he felt heard and unburdened after having his questions addressed in a meeting. And, a woman from Trinidad and Tobago stated, after listening to a discussion on stress and coping during the COVID-19 pandemic, that the topic proved timely and meaningful for her: “[It had been] on my mind lately, not [just] for Black men, but how do you acknowledge and deal with stress?” She said she applied the contents of the discussion to her own life experiences as a Black woman. Another regular attendee, Vern, encouraged his fellow participants that “moderation in all things is key to minimizing stress.”

Where can people access these conversations?

The sessions are every Saturday for now, hosted on Facebook Live on the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association Facebook page. All sessions are free and offer you the opportunity to subscribe so that you can be alerted to future sessions and to access other resources. We are posting links to all past sessions on YouTube, the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association Facebook page, and my own Linkedin page. Some highlights include the sessions with Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, SSM Health’s Damond Boatwright, and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.

What are the group’s hopes and plans for the weeks and months ahead?

When we started these sessions less than two months ago, our focus was on raising the profile of Black men’s mental health in Dane County, Wisconsin, and attracting much needed attention to this contributor to poor health and high mortality. We did not expect the rousingly positive response that we have experienced throughout the state, and the increased interest that we see nationally and internationally. This has strengthened our resolve and made us realize the need to apply this work statewide and ensure that it has national and international relevance. To that end, we are partnering with Black Men Run, a running group that promotes a healthy lifestyle among African-American men, with 51 chapters across the U.S., and also with the New York-based Real Dads Network, whose vision is to “create a culture where all fathers are actively engaged in the parenting process, and are portrayed and viewed as exemplary role models by society.”

Woman holds megaphone in front of other demonstrators at a 2014 Milwaukee demonstration in support of justice for Corey Stingley, by Joe Brusky, cc
A 2014 Milwaukee demonstration in support of justice for Corey Stingley, by Joe Brusky, cc.

The challenges to Black men’s physical and mental health are not novel; in fact, they are historically consistent. COVID-19 simply shone a light on the cracks in our systems and revealed areas that we can improve for the benefit of Black men, other racially marginalized men, other disadvantaged populations, and for the country. But COVID-19 has exacerbated the risks to Black men especially, and these mental health risks (e.g., depression, anxiety, trauma, suicides) are likely to balloon even once a vaccine is readily available and America recovers. Therefore, this live support group will be even more necessary and will need funding as part of efforts to continue to engage in community-building, and we are thankful that the number of attendees continues to grow.

What’s more, the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and the weaponizing-of-the-Police against Christian Cooper have increased national attention on violence against Black people. Coupled with COVID-19-related stress, the psychological toll of racism, and the legacies of the killing of Black people, makes it even more likely that Black men and boys will need these mental health resources when the pandemic is in our rearview mirror. The world’s response to George Floyd’s murder provides some hope. However, county, state, and federal systems must be proactive in fighting racism and police violence, while also addressing the underlying mental health issues that many will suffer as a result of this double pandemic of racism and COVID-19. 

As for our discussion groups, we believe that if one man, one child, one family is helped, then our energies are well spent.