RICHMOND, Va. — Prompted by community activist Bebe Moore Campbell, July was first recognized as Minority Mental Health Awareness month in 2008, according to the National Alliance for Mental Health.

Cambell aimed to have the month dedicated in an effort to not only break down systemic barriers but also shift the mental health culture in underserved communities should be recognized forever.

This mission is similar to that of therapist James Harris. The Richmond native started Men to Heal in 2018. It’s an organization aiming helping minority, men and boys with their mental health. Harris said he was prompted to create Men to Heal after feeling like there weren’t many spaces focused on helping men and boys of minority groups.

As a product of the foster system, he said he was required to go to therapy but never truly felt comfortable.

“I was a ward of the state, emancipated myself at 16,” he said. “And with foster care and group homes, therapy was pretty much a mandatory process.”

Harris became a therapist after his time in the military hoping to help people and help fill a void in his community.

“Most of the therapists were older white people, specifically older white women. So, it was not a connection, it wasn’t a cohesive process,” Harris said.

Not having someone you feel comfortable talking to because they can’t relate to you is a hurdle Harris said he’s seen many people face.

“We have to understand that sometimes the racial inequalities play an impact on how one may be dealing with that day-to-day action,” he said. “A Black man who’s constantly hypervigilant, looking over his shoulder, whether it’s from the neighborhood or for police behind you, or just overall, just hypervigilance or just being overstimulated and stressed, those things can impact now your physical health.”

Continuing this work after the creation of Men to Heal, Harris started the healing hub in 2019, a space to further cultivate healing in the community. It’s a wellness center that offers outpatient therapy, yoga, mindfulness, and financial resources to the community.

Harris said healing our community both physically and mentally is vital.

“If you’ve got a mental health issue, that can impact your physical [health] as well,” he explained. “We know that the mind and body are connected. So one is dealing with physical health issues, diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol issues. We know that you can be impacted with your mental health as well.”

Harris said this month helps emphasize the need for more resources for those disproportionately impacted.

“It’s definitely important that we pay attention to it. And we have the resources and outlets that are available for minorities, for the people or the community,” he said.

Being sure those resources can be accessed by those who need them.

“Even if it’s something as simple as being on a bus line so people can get to you, or just being in a position to where you can be found,” Harris explained.

He said it’s important we help stop the negative stigmas surrounding mental health. For example, the perception that needing help is a sign of weakness.

“We have to ensure that we understand that and destigmatizing it by creating safe spaces for men, creating safe spaces for boys,” Harris said. “So they know that being expressive, or displaying vulnerability doesn’t equate to weakness. It doesn’t equate to being soft.”

Harris said there is something we can all do to help improve the mental health of each other.

“The best things that we can do as a person as a people is have universality, which means like, ‘Oh, I’ve been through some similar, this is how I got over it.” Or, ‘I know somebody who been through this, this is what they did, or here’s a resource that might can help you,'” Harris said. “You can do mindfulness, you can do meditation, you can listen to calming music, you can surround yourself with a strong positive support system who want the best for you.”

Harris is hosting a seminar in August to help local fathers; he also has an interactive journal to help men of all ages navigate difficult things they may be going through. You can find all of these resources and more on the Men to Heal website.