Mental health encompasses our emotional and psychological well-being. It affects the entirety of our lives including how we feel, react to stress, and interact with other people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in six people experience a mental illness in any given year. However, African-Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. This is largely due to the social and economic impact of institutional racism. Racism and discrimination cause stress on an individual level. On a community level, racism disproportionately exposes black people to stressful life circumstances including poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. For this spotlight, I interviewed Rwenshaun Miller a mental health therapist, activist, advocate, and author of the book Injured Reserve: A Black Man’s Playbook to Manage Being Sidelined by Mental Illness. We talked about mental health in Black men, his personal mental wellness journey, and how we should empower each other to speak about our mental health.
Tell me about yourself.
I am Rwenshaun Miller and with my company Eustress, Inc. I raise mental health awareness in the Black and brown community by creating spaces where it is safe to talk about different issues that pertain to our mental health and mental illness. A lot of that work is done through education, but I also teach people where to get resources and actually link them to the resources that they need. In addition to the education and advocacy piece, I have my own counseling agency where I see about thirty cases on a regular basis. My focus is on creating action. It is one thing to acknowledge that we have issues in our community, but what are you going to do about it? I’m here to help people take action.
Rwenshaun inspires people to take action in improving their mental health through a variety of ways. He has popular Instagram and Twitter accounts that provide positive messaging for improving mental wellness. Quickly flip through his Instagram and you’ll quickly see that he indeed is about taking action. He hosts a weekly men’s group to gather and talk about mental health. He is practicing yoga and encouraging other Black men to do so as well because of its meditative and physical benefits. And he is speaking around the country on the impacts of mental illness and how people can improve their own health. Rwenshaun’s passion for this work can be seen from his social media and website because the work of healing is deeply personal to him.
What inspired you to do the work that you do?
Well I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006. I’ve been hospitalized, been in a strait jacket, and I’ve attempted suicide three times. I tried to overdose on pills the first two times and the last time I put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. When I was diagnosed, I denied it. I didn’t know what it meant. I was in my 2nd year in college and in high school I graduated top of my class and was a three-sport athlete. I went to a small, predominately Black high school in Lewiston, North Carolina and the University of North Carolina is definitely not an HBCU. There were a lot of new pressures and looking back I did not transition well. We have this notion of ‘not me or this can’t be me I’m immune to certain things.’ I went through a denial phase for thirteen years even after the suicide attempts and I was self-medicating with alcohol. I wouldn’t get the help that I actually needed until the last time I tried to kill myself with the gun. That’s when I was like something has to change. I went to therapy, actually got on medication, and got better.
When I got better, I looked at the world completely different, and I saw a void there for Black people but especially for Black men. We have this notion that we can’t show any type of emotion other than being happy or angry. There is no in between. Men don’t cry. We have to wear that mask and we wear that mask so much that we try to bury things. Those things start to come out in ineffective ways. I started to notice stuff in my friends like drinking and smoking really, and I wanted them to get the help that I got. The only way I could really get them to get the help was to share my own story because during that seven-year period no one knew the things that I went through. So, I started to share my story with them just to help them and help them get the resources that they need and then it started to transpire into just an awareness thing. It was a personal thing at first – just me wanting to help friends and then I saw so many other people who needed help as well.
Rwenshaun’s website notes that telling his story is his therapy. Although he relives the depression and suicide attempts each time he tells the story, he is comforted by the fact that as he continues to practice vulnerability he is able to create space for other people to open up about their mental health journey. In an age where we are increasingly isolated and our social media profiles only show our best versions of ourselves, Rwenshaun is creating a community that is comfortable with stepping into their mental wellness battles and discussing them openly. He will be the first to tell you that he has bad days, months, and sometimes years. He recognizes that speaking about those struggles and how he works to overcome them breaks down the stigma around mental illness. Many famous Black men have been publicly addressing their struggles with depression and anxiety. Andre 3000, Frank Ocean, and Kid Cudi have all recently spoke in major publications about mental wellness. Black men talking openly about their mental health is a radical occurrence and one Rwenshaun feels strongly about.
Black men are missed when it comes down to expressing emotions. We teach our young Black men to suck it up and be a man. They can be as young as two! We have to teach them to process those emotions and learn how to communicate for us to be more effective in society. We deal with a lot of stuff. I wrote a blog post on how the only time I’m truly myself is when I am home by myself. When I step out of the house I have to make sure I’m wearing my correct mask in a sense. If I am driving, I have to make sure I am doing that carefully, so I’m not pulled over. If I get pulled over, I have to use the correct vernacular, so I don’t agitate the officer. I’m constantly adjusting to the perceptions of what everyone else thinks I am. Black men can’t be themselves in corporate environments; Black men can’t even be vulnerable with their homeboys. Most Black men rarely have those real genuine conversations, so that’s why I try to create those spaces and really focus on that stuff. There isn’t a reason to hold on to that stuff. We’ve been holding on to it for generations.
Rwenshaun’s book Injured Reserve echoes these sentiments about the importance of vulnerability and finding safe space to speak about your issues. He models this behavior for the readers throughout the text of his book. Injured Reserve tells Rwenshaun’s story in detail – the suicide attempts, the pressure from college, hiding his diagnosis from friends and family. However, the book is not just about Rwenshaun. Injured Reserve is a playbook; it asks the reader to explore their own mental health issues. He uses his story as an example and directs the readers like a coach on how to navigate from the sidelines to the playing field becoming an active player in improving their mental health in the process.
Rwenshaun is a walking testament to the expression “be the person you needed when you were younger.” His vision is generational. To him Black health is a complex interaction of past and present. It involves: “looking back on our history and everything that we’ve endured and finding the voids that we missed and building on those to make sure that we and future generations are better. We have to instill these habits into our children and our children’s children to make sure they are as healthy as possible. We can’t continue to repeat certain things that have been hurting us in the past.”