Mental Health at the Mic: Christian A’Xavier Lovehall
by Glenn Holsten
In the U.S., males of color are disproportionately affected by various forms of marginalization and adversity including violence, poverty, incarceration, lack of access to health care, low social status and trauma.
With the pressures of daily life and our societal stigma associated with mental health challenges, how can males of color engage in a thoughtful, honest and supportive dialogue about mental health?
In Philadelphia, they are doing it through the power of stories.
Engaging Males of Color (EMOC) is a venture established by the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services that addresses the impact of health, economic and educational disparities experienced by males of color. One of their most successful initiatives is BEyond Expectations, a storytelling series that features men of color who share their journeys with a live audience, with the hope of providing a shared experience, and direction for support and help.
EMOC works directly with Philadelphia’s First Person Arts (a non-profit organization that celebrates the story in each one of us) to help the men prepare for their performance. With guidance from First Person Arts, stories are written, rehearsed and then finally performed in front of a live audience. After the stories are shared, there is time set aside so that audience members can follow up with their observations, comments or questions. These stories are a spark for a much needed conversation in our culture about mental health. In this case, mental health specifically for males of color.
Department Commissioner Dr. Arthur Evans, Jr. says that “storytelling is universal. All cultures do it. People find it to be a nonthreatening way of having discussions about things that are hard to talk about. When people tell their stories, it allows people from really diverse audiences to engage with the individuals who are sharing their stories.”
BEyond Expectations: A Storytelling Series
The men’s stories have highlighted challenges they have faced in life. Equally important to Dr. Evans is the fact that the stories also celebrate triumphs and achievement. “We use those and lift those up and have discussions around what worked, and the kinds of things that people can do to make sure that they’re mentally well.”
A common thread throughout the stories, Dr. Evans said, is a “turning point” — that moment when someone who’s traveling down a path recognizes that there are choices that they can make to better their situation. “You hear a lot of tragedy, perhaps people who’ve experienced people dying in their community, brothers dying, themselves going through really different challenges, but then there’s this turning point and for each person that turning point is different, it comes at a different point. It’s precipitated by different things, but after that turning point, you see a conscious decision for them to move their life in a different direction. For me as a psychologist and as a mental health professional, what I think about then is how can we help precipitate turning points in men’s lives because that can be a strategy then for moving people into a different path, a path of health.”
These “turning points” are interesting because they change the narrative that people have about men of color.
Dr. Evans has long been a champion of recovery, and is a leading force behind the ongoing transformation of behavioral healthcare from more of an acute care system to a recovery-oriented system. “The whole notion of recovery says that inherent in each person are strengths that we can work with,” said Dr. Evans. “Clearly people have challenges — that’s why they come to us — but people also have strengths. Recovery is also built on the idea that there is the hope in potential for health and wellness for each person and that our role as practitioners, as mental health professionals is to tap into that and to help people get to that place of wellness. The philosophy around recovery and the philosophy around EMOC (Engaging Males of Color) is very similar and tied and that same philosophy drives how we approach this work.”
The EMOC storytellers are brave because they allow themselves to be vulnerable — up on stage, nothing but a microphone between them and a live audience. By sharing these stories, they are helping themselves, and they are definitely helping others.
EMOC Coordinator Gabriel Bryant, says that “often times as males of color we might think that our story is unique to myself — ‘I’m only experiencing this myself and so I had to deal with it. I’m not going to ask for help.’ But once you actually see on stage, several men talking about these same experiences going through issues of depression or going through loss, or dealing with fatherhood in several different ways. Now you see, ‘Wow my story isn’t so different, and, more importantly, I saw how he got through it, and maybe I need to go through it in the same exact fashion.’”
The BEyond Expectations storytelling series and the entire EMOC program is a model for how other cities can improve awareness and access to mental health services for males of color.
Christian A’Xavier Lovehall
OC87 Recovery Diaries is proud to present this first part of a series of portraits of men who have participated in the BEyond Expectations storytelling series.
This post features the stories and interview comments with the remarkable Christian A’Xavier Lovehall, an artist, activist and transgender man who shares his journey of self-realization.
Q&A With Christian A’Xavier Lovehall
“I want the audience to understand that trans men exist, that we, too, are men of color and experience many of the traumas and mistreatments black men experience in society, “ says Christian. “I want them to just understand that there is a movement of trans — of rights and liberation — being fought. This is what it’s about, and this is how you can help.”
While the storytelling is often therapeutic for many of the participants, Christian’s reasons for sharing his story are clear. “The positive effect of this is having young trans men being able to look this up, hear my story, and know that they’re not alone. Even if it’s just one person.”
Please visit dbhids.org for additional behavioral health resources and to learn more about Engaging males of Color. More information about First Person Arts is available at firstpersonarts.org.