Have a person: Have someone that you can confide in, that you can completely be honest about how you are feeling, who you will be authorize to call your friends and family, if necessary.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Ralph Bryant.
Ralph Bryant is a writer, content creator and event producer living in Ontario, Canada. He is the co-founder of Black Fathers Media, a content creation and brand development company focused on elevating the voices of nontraditional and underrepresented audiences. He is the creator of Shackles Lost, a long term documentary project on his struggle with mental illness (www.patreon.com/shackleslost), as well as the and co-host of the podcasts, Black Fathers Matter and the Beauty Under 40.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in New York City, mostly between the Bronx and Harlem. Saying my childhood was difficult would be an understatement. I only saw my father ten times in my life, and most of those times, it was to steal from my family. My mother had her first child at 15, and she was hospitalized and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at 16.
My mother did her best she could, but by the time I was 15, I moved out on my own. It was on the streets that I found a home, a family. But it was also on the streets that the beginnings of my own mental illness journey started to form.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
We are in a crisis inflection point in North America, where the intersection of the Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement have added an even deeper layer of tension and uncertainty. Black people are 20% more likely to suffer from mental illness and 30% more likely to to have a serious mental health challenge. In my personal life, I have lived in silence with mental illness for over 35 years. I quietly lived in a roller coaster of manic depression without asking for help — lying to myself and every single person in my life, I managed to create a fairly successful career but it was achieved on house of cards, one that was destined to fall at some point. My mental illness impacted the way I saw myself as a husband, father, and most importantly, as a black man.
One of the other challenges which may or may not be unique to the black community, is that we are rarely transparent and honest about our mental health for because we do not want to be seen as weak. This is why I have chosen to launch my multimedia documentary project called “Shackles Lost.” It is designed to tell my story and showcase the devastating effects that childhood trauma and years of depression can create.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I am a third generation sufferer of mental illness. Both my maternal grandmother and mother were diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics and she was hospitalized on and off throughout my life. In addition to my genetic predisposition, I was sexually assaulted at the age of 13, which was also a devastating part of my childhood. These two incidents affected every single one of my formative years.
My entire life consisted of me trying to trying to prepare diligently to guard against mental illness: therapy, diet, exercise. However, as an adult, that trauma turned into occasional sadness, then manic, uncontrollable urges, followed by crippling depression so low and difficult that I was eventually hospitalized because it all came to be too much. I ended up inside a mental institution, and still had to confront with all these feelings I had tried very hard to ignore.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My “AHA moment” for why I needed to tell my story was almost three years ago, when I felt at the lowest I had ever been. I was so depressed, afraid and alone — and I begged for everyone I knew to help me. Not one person responded — none of my family or close friends came to my rescue while I laid in the streets. And I think that happens because we only see mental illness at its most dramatic and explosive — we keep those daily struggle so quiet. Once I was able to fully understand the work I had to do, I wanted to become transparent about my struggle hoping it will help others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting is the feedback that I have heard since launching the “Shackles Lost” documentary project has been the support from so many people telling me how proud they are of me for being so honest about my mental health challenges and sharing in my opinion that my story can help others.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My biggest cheerleader has come from a surprising place: a former colleague named Tom Seeberger. He has been incredibly supportive of the “Shackles Lost” project. He hosted a Facebook fundraIser for the project, raising thousands of dollars to support the editing of the movie. He has also been a great sounding board as the project continues to ideate. It is very difficult in a project like this to get people to share your vision and get them to believe in it. I have been very fortunate to have Tom in my corner.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
For far too many people, they only seek treatment after their illness has become a more acute problem, involving medication and therapy. I think this is for a few reasons: 1. for men, and even women, mental illness is perceived as a sign of weakness. This is is especially true for black men. 2: for people who are comfortable seeking treatment, there is also the significant cost, which can be prohibitive for people without secondary insurance, especially for illnesses that requires medication. 3. is time; adults, especially parents, barely have time to manage their families, let alone allow time for therapy or self care practices.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
In my experience, the most important thing that individuals and society can do to better support people suffering from mental illness is to listen to them; to not judge them, and be available to assist them in seeking additional resources.
The most important thing governments can do is to erase the negative stigma in mental health policy. For many municipalities, when a case of mental illness is dispatched to the 911 switchboard, those cases are handled by police officers, adding a layer of tension to an already difficult situation. Part of the demands of the defunding the police movement is to reallocate resources that would go to the police and put them into treatment and case management.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Have a self-care day: I have become a big believer in the power of a weekly day of personal rest and care, allowing yourself to do whatever you need to wrap yourself in a blanket of self love. And it doesn’t only have to be Sunday.
- Lists: I am great at making lists, but awful at following them. But simply the act of making the list, understanding what my plan should be, makes me less stressed, even when I don’t get it all done.
- Take The L: Somedays I wake up and I can just feel that I don’t have it on that day; that I would be better served staying in bed and trying again tomorrow. Every once in awhile i give into this feeling, pull the covers over my head, and ride out the storm.
- Have a person: Have someone that you can confide in, that you can completely be honest about how you are feeling, who you will be authorize to call your friends and family, if necessary.
- Sleep: This is something I have ignored for many years, and a lack of sleep has had a devastating impact on my overall mental health. I try to have a routine that allows me to get more sleep that I need, and also try to allow for naps during the day.
- Therapy: Not everyone believes in the impact of therapy, but I believe that not every is ready to confront the reasons for their challenges in the same way and at the same time. However, I do believe we must all confront those feelings that are stopping us from moving forward, and therapy is one vehicle to do so.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
As the host of two podcasts, you may not be surprised to know that I love podcasts. I am especially fond of therapy and advice podcasts. I listen to Esther Perel’s “Where Should We Begin, Dan Savage’s “Savage Lovecast,” and the Dear Sugars podcast. I am also a little obsessed with ASMR and white noise videos on Youtube; both really great for relaxing me.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
First and foremost, I would say to all young people to find something that they love doing but will also make a positive impact on society. Right now, I would say the most important thing that all young people must do is vote. There is no more important act that can be taken right now. In general, I think considering roles in public service will also have a significant impact on society.
How can our readers follow you online?
First, I would like to thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you today. Information about The Shackles Lost project can be found at www.patreon.com/shackleslost. I also host the podcast, Black Fathers Matter, which can be found on Youtube, Apple Podcasts and Spotify. My personal Instagram page is @ralph_bryant.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!