What Happens When Black Men Chop It Up at a Desert Mental Health Retreat? You’d Be Surprised

It’s late August 2023, and a group of twenty or so Black men have traveled from as close as Los Angeles and as far aways as South Africa into the California desert town of Joshua Tree for a wellness retreat. The weather is dry and arid one day, and wet another as a rare hurricane approaches the region.

The summit of brothers, hosted by the BLK dating app, titled “Brotherhood Reimagined,” included workshops facilitated by Black men on mental health, sound baths, yoga and meditation, bonfire chats, massages and facials, star gazing, and healthy eating.

The group it brought together couldn’t have been more diverse with an age range from 25 to 55, various political and religious affiliations, sexual orientations, educational levels, and career paths.

The significance of the above may be lost on some so let me provide some context. I’ve been a therapist for more than 15 years and I’ve never heard of, or participated in, an event of this magnitude with the singular focus of promoting wellness amongst Black men, full stop!

The experience begs the question, why hasn’t something like this happened before?

We know that Black men are suffering. Recent studies show that the national suicide rates for Black youth and young adults continue to increase, Black men are sent to jail at higher rates and spend more time in jail than their white counterparts, and another study acknowledged that research on Black male mental health is extremely sparse and that more research needs to be conducted that focuses on this population specifically to better understand and address their mental health needs.

How can this be accomplished when only 5 percent of all therapists in the United States are Black and an even smaller percentage are Black men? Essentially, Black men are looking for a unicorn when it comes to finding someone that looks like them to support them on initiating their mental health journey.

So, back to my question about why this isn’t a more common occurrence. I think Black men are vocally silent and behaviorally loud when it comes to their own mental health and wellness. You’re less likely to hear a Black man say they’re depressed and more likely to see them be irritable, easily frustrated or angered, living in the gym, or using alcohol or marijuana; behaviors that lean into prevailing racist tropes about them.

Additionally, most people aren’t trained to look below the surface to see the pain, sadness, and stress Black men contend with and if you are it is still a difficult undertaking because men in general, and Black men even more so are experts in masking negative emotions such as sadness, worry, or intense anger. Couple that with concerns about keeping their masculinity intact or the fear of having their emotions and behavior pathologized due to receiving treatment from a clinician that lacks cultural competency, the end result is we get left out of the wellness conversation because no one knows what will be beneficial in building community and creating a safe space and we aren’t actively seeking them out.

The anecdotal evidence from the retreat supports the idea that these spaces are needed more than ever. Through the course of the event, the discussion ranged from good and bad experiences with significant others to who was truly the hip-hop G.O.A.T. Were there disagreements? Sure, but no drama. Several attendees in Joshua Tree were left wanting to know when the next iteration would occur, many reported the experience as their first time engaging in some of the activities, and some have sought to continue the connections that were established.

The highlight may have been the theme of inclusion that remained present throughout the course of the weekend. The singular link for the group was around simply identifying as Black and male. What I know is that human beings have a range of emotional experiences and connection needs and Black men aren’t absolved of this. Our experience was proof.

As we head into “Movember” and place emphasis on men’s wellness, I hope that intentionality in creating wellness spaces for Black men continues and that those spaces are centered around acceptance. Healing in community is powerful.

Stevon Lewis is a Los Angeles-based speaker, author, licensed psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of Impostor Syndrome, and the host of the podcast, “How to Talk to High Achievers About Anything,” produced by LWC Studios. Learn more about him at his website: StevonLewis.com.

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