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No Shame in the Game 

May is mental health awareness month. And veteran James Harris is on a mission to rid the stigma for black men seeking mental health counseling.

click to enlarge A veteran of tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, James Harris has a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and a new initiative, Men to Heal.

Scott Elmquist

A veteran of tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, James Harris has a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and a new initiative, Men to Heal.

Big boys don't cry. Be a man about it. What happens in this house stays in this house. And whatever you do, don't break the family code.

Studies have shown that black Americans deal with issues related to stigma, psychological openness and getting help for mental health issues, all of which affect their coping behaviors, according to Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans.

However, black men are particularly concerned about the stigma. 

That's where James Harris comes in. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who also has a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling, Harris is on a mission to change the way black men avoid seeking help for mental health issues. His Men to Heal initiative helps to make therapy accessible while educating the community that mental health must be a priority for all black men.

"I've known men who needed to talk to somebody about their issues, but they had no resources to do it until there was me being loud about it," Harris says, explaining that religion becomes a catch-all, with black men often being told they can pray it away. "Black men are deemed weak or soft for being vulnerable." It's a similar situation, he says, for men raised in Hispanic cultures rife with machismo.

Harris spreads the word about Men to Heal through Instagram, speaking engagements at schools and churches as well as online via Skype so he can reach those living in other countries. He also has T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the words Mental Health, with the "tal" lined through, the word "to" replacing it and the "heal" of health underlined. He also does free quarterly forums, announced via social media, relating to men's wellness in general, covering topics such as mental and physical health as well as substance abuse.

One of the hurdles Harris seeks to overcome is what he refers to as Hollywood therapy, the kind typically depicted in mainstream movies and TV.

"Inner city blacks are turned off by the whiteness of how therapists are shown," says Harris, who is in private practice at Avail Outpatient Counseling in Shockoe Bottom. Unfortunately, it's a reality because so few black men are trained as mental health counselors.

As a ward of the state after being separated from his family as a child, Harris was required to attend counseling sessions he had little interest in. "I was sent to a white therapist with no cultural sensitivity and no understanding of my personal issues," he recalls.

Years later, he turned that regret into action by going back to school to become a trained counselor. "My process is more collaborative than the cliché of someone just sitting on a couch talking to a professional," he says. "It's more collaborative because I am them. I can relate because I've walked the walk, living it and then studying it."

As the program manger and community workforce developer for Goodwill Industries, Vincent White moves in many of the same circles as Harris. After attending one of Harris' quarterly forums at the Well with his 13-year old son, White was fully on board with the Men to Heal movement. 

"I was surprised how much my son enjoyed it," White says, mentioning that his son answered questions posed by the panel, providing the professionals and adults there with a teen's interpretation of things. "Men were talking openly and expressing vulnerability. He's used to me sharing, but at the forum, he saw me sharing in that space, being able to talk it out with 20 or 40 other people."

White, who grew up with an incarcerated father, wrote a book about the search for his biological dad called "Finding Chris, My Father" and works on fatherhood initiatives. He will be a panelist at the next Men to Heal quarterly forum on Fatherhood Trauma on Aug. 8.

Because of his years in the Army, Harris actively seeks to work with the veteran population to allow those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues access to someone who's been in a war zone.

Athletes are another group of men who tend to face difficult issues in a culture that expects them to handle problems without help. Harris points to the athletic lifestyle where men travel constantly, miss their families and face the reality that even with lots of income, mental health problems persist and self-medication is not a sustainable solution.

When Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade recently announced his retirement, he also announced he'd be seeking therapy to help him adjust to life post-NBA, admitting that he used to have a skeptical attitude about talking to a psychologist.

"That's important because asking for help becomes less taboo in your peer group when someone like Dwyane does it," Harris says. "It shows he's open to breaking the cycle."

Often, he says, it's a man's partner, parent or friend who reaches out to get help for a man reluctant to ask for it. From there, Harris reaches out to offer reassurance, an unbiased voice and treatment, whether short- or long-term, based on the severity of need.

With May designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, Harris is working hard to get the word out that help is available.

As he says: "My goal is to end the stigma of men asking for help."

To learn more, visit Instagram: men_to_heal and at mentoheal@gmail.com.

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