By David E. Marion, Ph.D.
Licensed Professional Counselor, and Marriage and Family Therapist
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.
Growing up, in my community, it was frowned upon to ask for help outside of your family. You were forbidden to talk to non-family members about your feelings and especially forbidden to talk about what was going on in your house. There was the inaccurate perception that counseling was for “White folks.” If you needed counseling or medication, that meant to the world you were “crazy,” a layman’s term incorrectly used to label many mental health conditions and challenges. In all my years of counseling, I have never seen the term “crazy” in any diagnostic manual.
It is unfortunate for someone to know they need help and not seek it. As a licensed professional counselor, what I have seen are individuals who became overwhelmed by life. I have seen those who were tired of hurting. They had tried everything they knew and been unable to find peace. They couldn’t move on from their past. They couldn’t forgive themselves. They didn’t seem to be able to stop making the same choices repeatedly, expecting different results. Counseling was their last resort. They somehow found the courage to come and felt healing and peace when they found they were not “crazy.”
I have provided counseling to many individuals and their families, and I have seen firsthand that African Americans are cautious about seeking mental health services. In the African American community, we seek advice from lawyers, accountants, pastors, and others. We talk at length with friends and family. Why not talk to a seasoned, licensed professional counselor about the difficulties of living life on life’s terms? Many African Americans have found religion to be a great source of peace for them. I have found peace as well when I go to church or when I pray. Counseling, I have found, can also be a spiritual experience if it is helpful to the individual and/or family.
I love it when African Americans come to treatment to see “Dr. Marion” and discover, with sighs of relief, that I am African American. It is gratifying to make this initial step much easier. Counseling is not advising. In counseling, one should feel they have the undivided attention of the counselor; that they are heard and believed; and that what they say will be held in confidence unless they are a threat to themselves or others. We might all benefit from this type of interaction.
One of the most memorable counseling sessions I have ever conducted was with a woman who had been sexually assaulted almost two decades earlier. She shared with me, “You are my last resort,” and talked the entire hour-long session. At the end of the session, she said, “That was the best counseling session I have ever been in.” I assessed what I had done so well, only to realize that I had said no profound or prophetic words but had allowed the process to unfold. That is counseling at its best.
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. (OPPF) promotes the importance of seeking help for mental health problems through our joint program with the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), called Brother, You’re on My Mind (BYOMM). In 2014, OPPF met with NIMHD staff to see if we could form a partnership around mental health, targeting African American families and African American men specifically. The goal was to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness and to get help once diagnosed.
Out of that meeting came the BYOMM initiative. Today, the 750 OPPF chapters in the U.S. and abroad are directed to bring mental health experts into their meetings and to community events to discuss the signs and symptoms of mental illness and where to get help. Members within our organization are continuously reflecting on how the program is giving them a way to open up.
Let National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month serve as a reminder that mental health challenges are real. Through BYOMM, OPPF is committed to help eradicate the stigma of mental health challenges and to encourage our people to seek professional help/counseling.