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“Healed Men Heal Men”

Founded by women, Philly-based Black Men Heal is helping to address the emotional pain of African American men around the country

“Healed Men Heal Men”

Founded by women, Philly-based Black Men Heal is helping to address the emotional pain of African American men around the country

I grew up at a time when it was cool to sport “Black Men Are An Endangered Species” T-shirts. Note to self: It wasn’t. These days if you ever need insight into or evidence of the ways Black men are struggling to find answers — or looking for ways to identify with communities that are more edifying — spend some time on social media in the enclaves allegedly designed to uplift Black men.

They are often lessons in models of masculinity built on physical prowess and violence, or worse — agitprop “how-to” missives from retrograde gurus who can only prop up themselves by degrading others, usually women and most specifically Black women.

Somewhere between the demise of Kevin Samuels and the indictment of Young Thug (and dozens of other Black men in Fulton County, Georgia), a powerful parable is writing itself. The central lesson of this parable is all about healing and the permission to look for and find the ways Black men can heal.

The urgency for healing is not in question here. A cursory review of the fatal gun homicides in the City of Philadelphia this year suggests that 123 of the 148 victims were Black men. Data on the shooters, particularly because so many of these cases remain unsolved, is not available. The victims of gun violence reflect one vector in an ever-expanding model of disparity that infects the lived experience of Black men.

This data set is a vector in another sense too: Death data on Black lives is almost like a living organism; it works to transmit the disease of violence from one victim to another; one family to another; one community to another.

Imagine what it would take to redress the emotional pain and duress across communities plagued by this kind of violence. The fact that we generally don’t even think about the fear and grief associated with the data around this kind of endemic Black death points to the limitations of our discourse (and our politics) on these matters.

Black men need to heal. And in the absence of any comprehensive (national) program to redress these challenges systemically, we are all left at the mercy of those who assume the onus of this need for healing as a personal and professional mission.

Enter: Tasnim Sulaiman, co-founder of Black Men Heal.

Addressing an individual and communal need

Black Men Heal is on a mission. At the core of this mission — “to provide access to mental health treatment … to men of color” — is a potent premise: “Healed men heal men.”

Maybe this simple slogan will take on the conventional energy of its more negative predecessor, the almost cliché idea that “Hurt people hurt people.” Maybe it won’t. But the concept is powerful and it is the mantra of an organization that works to provide a mental relief valve for men who feel lost in an unloving and unforgiving world.

We know that Black men are searching for belonging — especially young Black men. They may be fumbling their way through a tapestry of emotions in a world that too often looks like it hates them for existing; chokes them for breathing; and routinely disposes of them in the world’s most carceral state.

Black Men Heal offers eight free therapy sessions to Black men who fill out a quick application to qualify for the program. Agency and accountability are the most important features for applicants. Men must apply for themselves — no referrals or recommendations from life partners or family members. And they must have some accountable clarity on their own mental health needs. The organization uses a proprietary matching system to screen and match patients with therapists of color. Black Men Heal has provided 1,295 free sessions so far, and has “graduated” its 10th cohort of patients, 75 percent of whom are staying in therapy.

“They’re committing to [the work], so it’s not just the free [sessions],” Sulaiman says. “That’s the powerful thing, showing the impact: we’re jumpstarting their healing journey. They become committed to their own mental health. Some of them just do the eight sessions and are okay, but a lot of them continue on, and that’s been powerful.”

In all, Black Men Heal has served 1,595 men globally through individual therapy and its peer-to-peer group program, Kings Corner.

Tasnim Sulaiman grew up and attended public schools in the 26th and Lehigh neighborhood of Philadelphia before attending West Chester and Temple universities. Her experiences certainly set a context for the work that she does now. As she reflected on her early school years, she tells me that her neighborhood was a “typical inner-city North Philly area.”

We know that Black men are searching for belonging — especially young Black men. They may be fumbling their way through a tapestry of emotions in a world that too often looks like it hates them for existing; chokes them for breathing; and routinely disposes of them in the world’s most carceral state.

Sulaiman is affable and engaging, with an authentic affect. Talking with Ms. Sulaiman feels like talking with an old friend. “People from Philly or people of color are going to connect to each other in a way like: We go way back. There’s this level of trust. There’s a level of genuineness and authenticity that really helps with building trust, which is really important for a therapeutic relationship. You don’t want to be explaining your experience of having to code switch.

A lot of people of color, we live in a world where you go into your work environment, you go to all these different places and you get caught in this code switching, where you have to look and sound like other people in order to make other people feel comfortable.”

Sulaiman has been operating a private practice as a licensed counselor for years. Before that, she served several years as a counselor for a managed healthcare system. It does not take long in the conversation before Sulaiman shares her experience-based insights on the problems and institutional challenges that dog the managed mental healthcare system: “Part of it is burnout … and then it’s also working with patients who need so many other resources. [A]s a therapist you’re helping patients self-actualize. Food, shelter, housing, safety; all of those things have to come before self-actualizing.”

Sulaiman catalogs these problems almost matter-of-factly now. One of the most frustrating features of the system was a chronically high no-show rate. Sometimes Sulaiman would schedule 40 appointments to secure 20 sessions. These days she recalls the professional trauma of working in the managed mental healthcare system, but depicts her exit from the system as an escape.

A focus on Black men

In private practice, Sulaiman developed her professional experience in a variety of counseling areas, including family and relationships counseling. It was in this space that she began to key in on the mental health of Black men. “I just really enjoy working with men in therapy,” she tells me.

I’ve really found it challenging. I’ve found that it has given me different perspectives of men. I was experiencing men in ways that I don’t think the world or society is used to experiencing men … very vulnerable and full of emotions and feelings.”

Sulaiman describes the experience in therapy with men as one she wishes that she could share with other women, share with the world so that everyone could experience men of color differently. “Vulnerability is the new sexy,” she says.

Established in 2018, with co-founder Zakia Williams, Black Men Heal struggled to stay afloat during its first two year, but Sulaiman and Williams were on a mission.

They had “zero money,” she tells me. “When I say none, people don’t really be hearing me. I feel like I shout it out a lot in these interviews, because I look back now on what we did and I’m like: How the hell did we do that? How did we get so much going when we had no resources?”

The founders of Black Men Heal did it through sheer grit and determination. Sulaiman recounts a process contingent on the kindness (and consideration) of therapists of color who understood the assignment — and the impressive goals of the Black Men Heal’s mission.

Sometimes Sulaiman made cold calls or sent direct messages via social media to contact colleagues and ask them to donate sessions to the effort. She garnered enough yeses to advance the organization’s mission. “We don’t have to sit and wait for other people to create a door for us to walk through,” she tells me.

But once the pandemic hit, the paradigm shifted. Mental healthcare (in general) saw a 100 percent increase in demand. The delivery of mental healthcare services via telehealth or online video platforms became more conventional. Sulaiman envisioned developing a pipeline for therapists of color to accrue the clinical experience necessary for them to secure licenses. This is something that can be difficult (especially for early-career therapists of color). The vision made sense but the resources were still lacking in 2020.

Support from Charlamagne tha God

In February of 2020 Black Men Heal benefitted from a one-two media punch. An Inquirer profile of the organization brought Black Men Heal to the attention of Charlamagne Tha God, co-host of the popular radio show The Breakfast Club, and a well-known figure who has been public about his own struggles with mental health. Sulaiman spoke with Charlamagne, who called her the day he was tagged in the Inquirer article.

“I told him all about the program and the journey. We talked about it, and he was just really blown away. And he said: ‘Yo, come to New York. I’m going to put you on the show.’”

Sulaiman and Williams were hoping to get local recognition from the initial profile. Now they were looking at appearing on a popular national profile viewed by millions. “Charlamagne was the first person to really donate some money to us. He donated $10,000 to us because he believed in it, and then I went on The Breakfast Club. I remember [being] on The Breakfast Club telling the story and saying, ‘When you’re operating for so long without a dollar you recognize the importance of a dollar. And so even if you have a dollar [to give], like, that means a lot to us.’ And the general public just started [to give] — I mean it was like a windfall. You just would not believe it. We were overwhelmed with all of the support for us.”

Sulaiman describes the experience in therapy with men as one she wishes that she could share with other women, share with the world so that everyone could experience men of color differently. “Vulnerability is the new sexy,” she says.

Sulaiman is almost wistful as she recalls the moment and remembers the power of community support for the vision of Black Men Heal. “Since then, we’ve gotten a lot bigger money, but the support from us is always the most important because our community loves this and believes in it and that means a lot,” she tells me. “And they might’ve sent $1, $2, $5, or $20, or $50, or $100 if they have it, but it came with these messages like: I love what you’re doing or I watched this with my boyfriend, who really needs it, and because he watched that interview with me, he wants to try therapy now. And I know this isn’t much, but I really believe in this.”

In the last two years, Sulaiman says Black Men Heal has raised over $1 million, and has developed several partnerships, including with My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which is part of the Obama Foundation.

The irony should never be lost in the fact that two Black women founded one of the most innovative mental health provider organizations (in the nation), explicitly committed to serving Black men.

“I was afraid when I started Black Men Heal [that] another narrative of a Black woman telling Black men what they need to do to be better [might take over]. I was afraid of that narrative,” Sulaiman says. “And I’m actually a Black woman who absolutely wants no responsibility for men’s labor, emotional labor. I am a Black woman that just created a safe space for men to come in to be responsible for their own emotional labor. I want to stop this narrative of women being responsible for men’s mental health or men’s labor to go to the doctor and all that. I actually want nothing to do with that.”

When I ask Sulaiman to share some of her successes from this work, she is visibly grateful. She tells me all about King’s Corner, a free, weekly online therapeutic talk session, facilitated by men for men, available to Black men around the globe. These sessions are not necessarily (or technically) therapy, but they are therapeutic.

I’ve attended a couple of sessions myself and they are an empowering safe space for men — who don’t know each other — to share their stories and reflect on the challenges in their lives. The facilitators — some therapists, some not — moderate the space and set a collective tone of transparency, accountability and safety. It is easily the most extraordinary space for sharing and building tools we all need to navigate the pitfalls of our mental health.

Next steps forward for Black Men Heal

Sulaiman is also excited about various other initiatives that Black Men Heal is leading to drive mental health care opportunities across communities of color. King’s Corner will be going on the road again in the near future, visiting several of the eight sites (Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Georgia) where Black Men Heal is currently operational.

The success of King’s Corner has opened up opportunities to provide a comparable platform/space for women of color — Heal With Him — which Sulaiman was excited to launch this year.

And maybe the crown jewel in Black Men Heal’s expansive mental health repertoire is still to come: the Gun Violence Group Therapy (GVGT) initiative. GVGT, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Black Male Engagement, will launch later this year to “address the mental health of youth and their family members as it relates to the impact of gun violence in Philadelphia by providing educational and clinical resources around grief and how to cope more effectively.”

Will Black Men Heal truly heal all that ails us? Probably not. Healing may not always require talk therapy, and talking about our problems won’t solve everything. But without the time and space to talk about healing, too many of us will never even begin our recovery journeys.

James Peterson is a writer, educator and consultant.


How to Get Low-Cost (and Free) Mental Health Services in Philadelphia

The Answer to Our Youth Mental Health Crisis?

Guest Commentary: We Must Heal the Trauma

The Citizen Recommends: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity


Header photo courtesy of Black Men Heal. At center: co-founder Tasnim Sulaiman

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