If you’re interested in sharing your opinion on any cultural, political or personal topic, create an account here and check out our how-to post to learn more.

Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity’s.

____

I spent my childhood in a wild neighborhood. I grew up on the Northside of Oklahoma City in a community called Chisolm Creek during the ‘80s and ‘90s. From an early age, I was exposed to gang violence, drugs, death — even the Oklahoma City Bombing happened when I was in the fifth grade. I remember the toll that took on the city; it seemed like every school year held a new tragedy.

I was bullied as a kid and had countless fights in elementary school. Without fail, I found myself in some kind of trouble. My mother, who worked full-time as a librarian for the OK Historical Society, was aware of the circumstances and, whenever possible, would look for ways to lift us up from our situation. I went to eight different schools in the same city.

While she sought to direct and redirect me, she embarked on her own path. In 1989 she became a Jehovah’s Witness. To this day I don’t fully understand why she made that decision. Maybe she felt, as a single mother, the church would help her raise a son that wouldn’t become a statistic. Regardless of the intention, the effect on me was only more conflict. Not only did I have to shield myself from the aggression of the streets, but I also had to shield myself from the aggression of a church organization whose cult-like indoctrination swallowed the identity of my only parental figure.

Even with factors like this at play, I was able to graduate from school. From there I worked my way to New York City, where I volunteered at Watchtower Headquarters from age 20 to 26. Later, I was recruited to work at L’Oréal and Kiehl’s and was their Master Barber from age 27 to 33. Then eventually, I went on to establish two successful barbershops in Manhattan. Looking back, it’s clear the only way I was able to get where I am today is by tending to my mental health. I had to rebuild my worldview and redefine my social, professional, spiritual, love life from scratch.

I went to therapy for years to unpack my history. I had to recalibrate my central nervous system through yoga and meditation. To travel, to consume inspiring literature and art by people who looked like me. To find like-minded role models that could lift me up and encourage me to be my best self. When you come from trauma, you have to make wellness a lifestyle.

While my experience is specific, unfortunately, it’s not unique.

Many Black and brown kids in New York City grow up in circumstances like I did. They experience an accumulative trauma that adversely affects their ability to show up in the world. We discuss PTSD in connection to large-scale events; soldiers who see combat overseas — but what about the chronic traumas that permeate the everyday lives of kids who grow up on the south side of Chicago, the South Bronx, the north side of Oklahoma City? These kids are exposed to an ongoing war, but where’s their veteran toolkit? Their crisis lines? Their PTSD therapies?

Living in this war zone isn’t treated as a trauma — and it should be. Black Americans are 20% more likely to be affected by mental health issues than the rest of the population, and exposure to violence increases the risk of emotional distress, depression and anxiety. I’m hopeful things are changing, and that for future generations these statistics won’t be a reality. But we can’t wait for that to happen.

There are many things that our country doesn’t want to speak about and one of them is mental health, particularly for Black Americans. We need to acknowledge, holistically, the reality of being Black in America is more complicated and therefore requires more care. We need to open the conversation to destigmatize mental health so that seeking help isn’t seen as a weakness or something to be ashamed of, but rather a sign of personal empowerment. It’s imperative we offer attainable ways for Black folks to take care of their mental health, and that we prioritize wellness in the larger context of our healthcare system.

And when it comes to mental wellness, kids need access to more positive, powerful role models. When you grow up in communities like I did, you are entrenched in violence and that way of life becomes normalized. It’s very easy to think that is all that’s available to you when it’s all you can see. Negative mantras like “nothing I do matters anyway” and “why bother” emerge. Add to that, the fact that many of these kids are just trying to get by in neighborhoods that are really rough. You are constantly being put in situations where you have to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. You’re forced to act in ways that are not reflective of your values — and of course, deep down you know that. This inner conflict erodes one’s sense of self. It chips away at your self-esteem and erroneously defines who you are by the tenants of survival rather than by the gifts you have to offer the world.

I’m grateful to have met the right people at the right time. Friends and mentors who, through their own excellence, showed me that I could be more and encouraged me to take steps towards achieving each of my goals. Though I’m still a work in progress, I feel proud of my personal growth and of who I am today. That said, I don’t believe I got here for my sake alone.

I’ve arrived on stable ground not only to run forward in my own pursuits but to reach back and extend a hand towards the next generation. It’s my responsibility to continue the legacy by being the best version of myself and speaking on the importance of mental health awareness. I want these kids not only to see there’s more but to know they’re worth more. If you know there’s more out there for you, then you can take steps towards transcending the card you’re dealt.

____

Charlie McCoy is the founder of The Grooming Alchemist by Artisan Barber, a mental health and wellness advocacy foundation working to improve the lives of cult survivors and empower underserved youth.