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Coping With COVID-19: Chicago Fire’s Daniel Kyri Wants to Challenge the Mental Health Stigma in the Black Community

In the black community, there is a long-standing negative stigma surrounding mental health. Nobody wants to talk about it for fear of looking like a lesser person.  In her latest podcast episode, Michelle Obama revealed her coping mechanisms for the low-grade depression she’s been experiencing recently, sparking headlines across the country and opening the door […]

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In the black community, there is a long-standing negative stigma surrounding mental health. Nobody wants to talk about it for fear of looking like a lesser person. 

In her latest podcast episode, Michelle Obama revealed her coping mechanisms for the low-grade depression she’s been experiencing recently, sparking headlines across the country and opening the door for more black celebrities to address their battles as well. From Alicia Keys to Kid Cudi, more and more black celebrities are sharing candid posts about their struggles with depression and anxiety.

This week, I sat down with Daniel Kyri – a Jeff-nominated actor, popular for his role as Darren Ritter in NBC’s Hit Show, Chicago Fire, and active advocate for mental health. Kyri discusses his own experiences with the effect of the pandemic, and why much needs to be done to change the stigma surrounding mental health. 

In a recent IGTV segment, Kryi opens up about his experiences with how COVID-19 has affected him and his mental health. “This is messy,” he says, “My hair ain’t brushed. There is food in my stache. This is just a bit of my humanity. And it’s about healing. And trying something new in my own healing process. Honesty. If you need healing, hopefully this can help in some small way. You aren’t alone. ”

Here’s my conversation with Kyri, and his thoughts on challenging the mental health stigma in the black community.

In what ways has the pandemic affected your mental health? 

It’s been tougher than I’d like to admit. What I’ve noticed most is the anxiety. My brain has been constantly fixating on stories I make up in my head about my relative safety and then my body responds by expending energy to “keep me alive”. At least that’s what it feels like when I can more closely examine my experience.

At the start of shut downs for Chicago back in March, my brain convinced me I’d been exposed and my body responded: my heart rate went up, I felt hot and achy which only convinced me that what I thought was true… only to check my temperature and have it be totally normal. My anxiety manifests itself physically–and still does. And that is to say nothing of the days of depression brought on by constant overwhelm. This time has tested me. It’s made me consider what I know about how I cope and the tools I employ to deal with my mental health.

What has been helpful for you on your journey to improve your mental health?

Honestly, my partner has been a huge help. The constant compassionate companionship makes me feel seen and validated on my worst days. Apollo (Mighty) and I have developed a routine together which helps keep the bad juju at bay.

We wake up and meditate and stretch together most days. We take turns making each other breakfast or juicing a bunch of fruits and veggies for one another (truly eating medicinally helps shift mood and energy levels in a very positive way even on the more troublesome days). Then we either engage in a joint or separate work out which typically ends in a moment of calm: intentional journaling. Exercise, meditation, and journaling have been so beneficial in dealing with my tumultuous mental state.

The practice of just checking in with one’s body and breath can be healing. Asking ourselves “how does this feel?” “where am I holding tension in my body?” or just breathing and sort of watching your emotions come up as if they are separate from you– acknowledging their validity and also accepting that you can release them, or not have them affect you. I often use the guided meditation app Calm to help on days where my focus is more erratic.

Overall the cultivation of self-awareness has offered me so much in the way of understanding myself, and when you begin to understand you can attempt some measure of control, and if not control then at least acceptance.

Do you think more Black celebrities should open up about their battles with depression and if so why?

I’ll be honest. While I believe that Black folks with elevated platforms could do a world of good in the work to destigmatize mental illness–especially within our communities– I also know that the world requires so much of us already. If someone decides to keep their battle private I can understand why. The world demands of us gratitude and grace and excellence in the face of institutional exclusion all while keeping its foot on our necks, neglecting our personal healing while exploiting our collective suffering whenever profitable. One need only look at the award ceremony reward system in place in Hollywood to understand what I mean. The Black trauma/suffering porn has been rampant within studio-backed storytelling and often is the only way for Black people–especially women– to receive any kind of recognition… which in and of itself can be re-traumatizing. 

So let’s ask instead: how can we make it easier for Black celebrities, for Black people period, to talk about their mental health, to seek help? How can we work to establish a system of support that is actually accessible to the folks who need it most? 

When we have a healthcare system designed to exclude and discredit us, a punitive carceral system not equipped for anything other than caging and enslaving people (especially those at the intersection of Blackness and mental illness), and–sometimes– a community which has been taught to ignore, belittle, or pray away mental illness how can we begin to make it safe for us to seek help and talk about it?

Until our healing is no longer taboo we should uplift those of us who have found the language and the courage to speak up, and we should hold space and grace for those of us who are not ready or cannot speak about it publicly. Both are valid.

What can we do to change the stigma surrounding mental health? 

We need universal healthcare. We must understand that to be well, to be healthy is a right and not a privilege. We need trauma centers in our poorest and most under-funded neighborhoods. We need to hold American leaders accountable to the people who pay their salaries and the people they are intended to serve.

We need to begin the work of defunding the police and reallocating funds into public health and communities. This is not so radical as it sounds. We have to invest in social work and healthcare and create programs and jobs designed to help people in crisis instead of sending in armed strangers with no training to arrest and imprison them.

These shifts in how we function as Americans must begin first with policy and divesting from big business and the ruling elite class who lobby and influence lawmakers. We must cede power to the people and listen to what our needs actually are. We must vote. Change the policy makers to begin shifting the culture. I believe these are steps that can help us eventually dissolve the stigma around health in general and then mental health specifically.

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