This Couple Wants to Help Black Men Go to TherapyThe Therapy for Black Men co-founders share how mental health care can impact generations.
A lot of men feel like they have to be tough because that’s the message society feeds them, says Benjamin Calixte, a life coach and co-founder of Therapy for Black Men. But, in reality, guys need support—and it’s more than OK to admit that you can’t get through hard times or work on yourself alone, he says. And while acknowledging that you need an assist is a super important first step, finding a “judgment-free, multiculturally-competent” therapist or life coach and paying for their help are tough barriers to overcome.
That’s why Calixte and his wife, Vladimire, a licensed mental health counselor, set out to not only make finding a therapist easier but also cushion the financial blow that often gets in the way of people seeking out support in the first place. The couple founded Therapy for Black Men, an online directory of nearly 600 licensed therapists and 57 coaches, back in 2018. And, as of November 2022, they’ve covered $70,000 worth of mental health services for those looking for help through their organization. "By providing targeted resources and a database filled with professionals equipped to support men of color, our users can now obtain the help they need and deserve," according to the Therapy for Black Men site.
Here, the team spoke to Wondermind about breaking the stigma around therapy and how to actually say, “I need help.”
[This interview originally appeared in a July 2022 edition of the Wondermind Newsletter. Sign up here to never miss these candid conversations.]
WM: You curated this hundreds-strong directory of licensed therapists. Why did you want to start this platform?
Vladimire Calixte: Growing up without a father, it was really tough. I internalized his absence, and I made it more so that there was something wrong with me. It wasn't really until I started to do my own inner work, my own healing work, [that] I realized: No, it's not that something was wrong with me. He was a man who was wounded, and that's why he wasn't around.
That was the big catalyst in starting Therapy for Black Men—to allow men to understand that these wounds follow you through adulthood. And if you don't work through them, they're gonna show up in your romantic relationship, they're gonna show up in all of your relationships, and your children are gonna pay for it. So if you're working through your healing journey, which is not linear—it's something that's constant—you become a better father, a better husband, a better person overall. It's not only [that] you’re doing it for you.
Benjamin Calixte: When I would go to the barbershop, I’d do some kind of polling in the sense of asking, “Would you go to see a therapist?” A lot of them would be like, “Oh, no, no. I’m not gonna go see [a therapist].” But that was the collective. The same people I would see as an individual, they would come up to me [and say], “You know, I kind of would.” And I asked, “Why didn’t you express that?” And they’d say, “I don’t want anyone to really know that I wanna see them.”
As a male, in terms of growing up, we've been [taught] not to really express our feelings. And if we did, it was kind of conveyed or taken as a sign of weakness. And we kind of just learned to put that on the backburner 'cause we didn’t want to [be] perceived like we were weak in front of other males.
We just want to help brush back that stigma. And it’s starting to really take a hold. Men are starting to really be in touch with their feelings.
WM: What emotion do you think is most difficult for men to come to terms with?
BC: Being able to express that they’re grieving. For instance, my father got me into sports at a young age, and that's something that I really enjoyed. And when I got into adulthood and I stepped away from that, I needed to grieve that past life.
Crying is [also] something that we really learned not to do, especially not in public…not with our friends. We feel that they're not able to handle that because that could change the dynamic of the relationship. You could have a friend that you maybe grew up with and you broke down in front of him, and it's no longer the same connection anymore because he feels [like], “Wait a minute, there's something a little bit off.”
VC: I’ll never forget this: A few years ago, I was in a session, a couples session, [and the man] was just sharing a whole bunch of things that he was going through with his friend group. And also, he had a new job and just different changes in his life. And I remember saying, “Wow, that sounds like you're grieving.” And you could see his whole countenance, his whole body language, was like, “Oh my goodness, now I can put a name to how I've been feeling.” And then [he said], “I thought grief was only associated with a loss of someone.” And I was like, “No, actually, with change comes grief. You’re grieving because you’re grieving these changes.” … I tell everyone when you connect with the right therapist, it makes a huge difference.
WM: You’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars to cover therapy sessions for Black men since 2020. Why is this financial assistance initiative important to you?
BC: When we set up the platform, we started to see that although you can have services, not everyone's gonna be able to access those resources. … So we decided: Why don't we at least kind of break the ice and allow them to at least get a sample? 'Cause a lot of the men who are seeking the services have never in their wildest dreams ever thought they would be sitting in front of a therapist, and we didn't want money to be the obstruction [preventing] them [from] seeing a therapist.
The process of therapy is to be transparent and to be vulnerable, which are big steps. You have to buy into that. So they'll sit with me, and then we'll streamline the process by contacting the therapist and letting them know that we are gonna be sponsoring [this person] for 10 [free] sessions.
WM: What have you learned from starting Therapy for Black Men together?
BC: It becomes something where it's more of a ministry for us than work. I don't necessarily consider Therapy for Black Men work, per se. When I do Zoom meetings and have men who are crying because they’re talking to me and expressing things, you're touched that you can, you know, hopefully make a change. And we feel that change for that person, whether it's a professional growth or personal one, is a change that can impact several generations because they decided to do something different.
WM: What advice would you give Black men who feel like they are suffering in silence?
BC: The first thing I would say is to start to have a dialogue with someone 'cause that suffering in silence is something that could build and take them to a really ugly and scary place—a dark place.
VC: A lot of times when you're going through something, you feel like you're all alone. But if the men can reach out to a support group, [that can be] really helpful because now you really don't feel like you're alone. There are people who are going through something similar.
WM: What is a stigma about mental health that you want to change?
VC: As a therapist, what I see in a lot of my sessions is, most of the time, people feel like therapy is for “crazy” people. If you encourage someone to go to therapy, the first thing you hear is, “Oh, there's nothing wrong with me.” So my response is, “You're right. There's nothing wrong with you. It’s what's right with you because therapy is not for the weak. It's for strong people who are able to say, ‘I need help.’”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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