Episode 13: A Conversation With Brandon Johnson, MHS With The Black Mental Wellness Lounge

Brandon Johnson, MHS, hosts The Black Mental Wellness Lounge on YouTube, where he talks with youth, men and parents and provides resources for improved mental wellness.

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Show Notes

Click on the show note section to jump to that part of the transcript.

00:42 About Brandon Johnson, MHS

Learn about Brandon Johnson, MHS and the ways he supports suicide prevention in various roles.

2:33 How faith communities have evolved around mental health

Faith communities play an integral role in supporting mental health.

3:26 The Black Mental Wellness Lounge

This is a YouTube channel Brandon Johnson, MHS created and it is a safe place for discussions on mental health in the Black community. He also provides resources and tips about racial trauma and mental wellness.

5:08 Getting past the fear of talking about suicide

It’s hard to talk about suicide, but it’s a necessary topic, as suicide rates continue to rise.

6:11 What is mental health?

There are many descriptions of mental health and our well-being. Johnson talks about the distinction between what people think is positive mental health and what it actually means.

7:33 Racial Trauma

Traumatic experiences in the Black community have a lasting impact on mental wellness and trust.

9:42 Using the right language to talk about suicide and mental health

What should you say to someone who may be struggling with their mental health? Choosing the right words is essential to reducing stigma and preventing further isolation. Johnson breaks down the best language for these conversations.

11:36 Mental health support

Studies show Black and Hispanic men do not get mental health support as often as their white counterparts. Johnson explains why this is the case and steps that need to happen to support the Black community.

13:30 Talking about mental health among men

It’s hard for men to talk about mental health. Learn how to have these discussions with friends and family.

16:19 Reaching and talking with youth

How do you create a safe space to talk with youth about mental health? 211 Maryland created MDYoungMinds, to connect youth with supportive text messages. There are other ways to have these discussions too.

18:29 The impact of social media on mental health

Social media impacts mental health, especially among young people, so how should parents handle that?

20:30 Hope for Black mental health

Johnson shares his hopes for mental health in the Black community.

Contact

Learn how to connect with the Black Mental Wellness Lounge.

Transcript

Quinton Askew (00:42)

Hello, everyone. Welcome to What’s the 211? My name is Quinton Askew, president and CEO of 211 Maryland. And, so as we continue to focus around mental health, I want to encourage everyone that if f you are in need of immediate assistance for crisis support – contact 211, Press 1 – 24/7/365 to speak to any of our crisis specialists.

We have a very special guest, Mr. Brandon Johnson, with The Black Mental Wellness Lounge. He has a masters of health science. Brandon is also a public health advisor with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA), co-lead with the Faith Communities Task ForceNational Action Alliance For Suicide Prevention, which actually means, you know, he’s, he’s the right man to have this discussion today. Mr. Johnson, how are you?

Brandon Johnson

I’m good. How are you? Glad to be on the podcast.

Quinton Askew (1:25)

I’m great. I’m great. Definitely. Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about, you know, your role with the SAMHSA and Faith Communities Task Force?

Brandon Johnson (1:31)

Absolutely. So, at SAMHSA, I serve in the suicide prevention branch. I’ve been at SAMHSA for about five years. And, my role. I’m the program lead of our largest grant program is the Garett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention Program, specifically the state tribal program.

So, we award grants to states, tribes and territories to do suicide prevention work for youth and young adults between the ages of 10 to 24. I also oversee, as a government project officer, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), which is the nation’s largest technical assistance and resource hub for suicide prevention materials for the country.

And, as a part of the Faith Communities Task Force, I lead that initiative and really what our job is, is to connect faith communities to the world of suicide prevention and to equip them with resources, tools, information about how to do that and to really show faith communities that they have a role in suicide prevention.

Faith Communities And Mental Health

Quinton Askew (2:33)

That’s great. In your experience, how have faith communities evolved around mental health?

Brandon Johnson (2:38)

We’re in a much better place now I think than even when I started in suicide prevention, which is about nine years ago. Faith communities are understanding that many people who are a part of their faith communities trust their faith leaders, even more than going to a mental health counselor or professional. And, so with having that, it’s important for our faith communities to connect others to mental health resources, connecting to therapists and counselors and things of that nature.

So many places and churches have mental health ministries, even the church that I attend in Baltimore. We have a Christian counseling center that’s attached to the church.

I mean there’s so much more now. The conversation is so different. Now, we still have some work to do. It’s not saying it’s everywhere, but it’s definitely been improving.

The Black Mental Wellness Lounge

Quinton Askew (3:26)

That’s good. That’s definitely good to hear. Now I’ve been following a lot of the work that you’ve been doing, whether it’s through YouTube or LinkedIn, and you are also the founder of the Black Mental Wellness Lounge. What actually inspired you to create that space? What do you hope to accomplish?

Brandon Johnson (3:40)

That’s my pandemic baby.

Quinton Askew (3:43)

We all got one of those, right?

Brandon Johnson (3:44)

Everybody got one, right? So, I started that during the pandemic. It was really the time where the pandemic was, you know, was becoming a reality.

Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. And so there was so much pain on my timelines with social media, with my family, my friends, and of just people, you know, trying to manage that weight of dealing with their mental health on top of a pandemic on top of racial trauma. Like so much happening.

So, I thought about it for awhile and I was like, you know, let me put out one video just to help people manage that. And, so I put that out and when I did the reviews were really good. I got a lot of views.

Brandon Johnson (4:29)

And I was like, you know, this may be something that I could do outside of my federal job. And, so I’m doing that with permission from my federal role, which I’m not representing the feds on this. I just want to be clear about that.

To really kind of engage with the community, right? Like I miss engaging with the community. And, so the Black men and wellness sandwich is my way to do that.

And, it’s really designed for authentic conversations with Black people, whether they be clinicians, experts, anybody from the community to talk about issues around mental health, specifically for us. Right. And, to have that safe space, to talk about the things that impact us directly.

Getting Past The Fear Of Talking About Suicide

Quinton Askew (5:08)

Yeah. And, definitely a space that we need. And, doing a lot of the work that you do with SAMHSA and tribal communities, and especially in our Black community, what has been most difficult about the work that you do? Most challenging?

Brandon Johnson (5:20)

I would say it sounds basic, but there’s still such a big reluctance across the country to talk about suicide. Like suicide is such a heavy topic. I totally understand that, but as we see our rates in specific communities continuing to rise, it’s important that we understand that suicidal ideation is real. People experience this, but there are resources and there are people and places and things in place to help individuals find resources to stay here, to find hope, to find the things that will push them into recovery.

So I think that’s the biggest piece of it. If we could get people more comfortable with the conversation, to understand that they’re not alone, and to understand that there are resources out there. I think we could do so much more if we could just get past the fear of the conversation.

What Is Mental Health?

Quinton Askew (6:11)

Yeah. And, definitely a good point. So, that fear, how do we generally describe mental health? Like what that actually is. I know we have so many definitions and descriptions of how we feel and our well-being, but how would you basically describe to sort of the layman what our mental health is?

Brandon Johnson (6:29)

Our mental health is our emotional wellness, right? It’s the ability for us to manage the things that cause issues with our mood, with our disposition, with our ability to function and get through life on a day-to-day basis.

And, so having a good mental health and overall good well-being means to be able to, in a healthy way, manage the emotions and things that we experience on a day to day basis.

It’s not the absence of emotion. I know a lot of people feel like not having a bad day or not feeling sad is having positive mental health. And that’s not true. We’re always going to have those things. We’re always going to get curveballs and be blindsided in life, but having good mental health is being able to manage those things mentally and emotionally to the best of our ability. Having those things in place, whether they be coping strategies, whether they be healing practices, whether they be connections to a mental health clinician. Having those things in place for us to learn how to increase our emotional intelligence, to be able to manage some of the things that we experience.

Racial Trauma

Quinton Askew (7:33)

Yeah. And just like you said, knowing every day is not going to always be a perfect day. And, so you mentioned earlier about traumatic experiences that happen in the Black community. You mentioned some of those horrific events. Again, it’s communities of color, that’s something that happened often. Like how does that affect our mental well-being? Just growing up in the communities that we grow up in, experiencing some of the trauma with family. How does that play a role from young adults to older adult that really affects us?

Brandon Johnson (8:03)

Yeah. It impacts the way we behave. It impacts the way we think, how we feel, how we process information. It definitely impacts our fight or flight response to trauma. It may make us hypervigilant in certain spaces.

You know, if we’ve experienced traumatic events at nighttime or somewhere, or in a specific area, we may be hypervigilant in avoiding that area. You know, some of us have trauma responses, whether it pertains to gun violence and even the sound of gunshots, and things can be difficult for us.

Traumatic experiences, as it pertains to law enforcement. Also, we’ve experienced a lot of adverse experiences in, in this, with law enforcement. So even just driving and having and hearing the sirens or seeing flashing lights behind you can create a sense of anxiety in that moment where you are worried about your own safety and well-being, like if you’re gonna be okay.

Brandon Johnson (8:55)

It also impacts us a lot of times in our workplaces. We’ve experienced racism, whether overt or covert. A lot of times, it creates this challenging dynamic of being in the workplace, being African American, and really thinking through how are we perceived? What way am I supposed to act? How are people looking at me, will it affect my performance, my evaluations, all of those things as well?

So, it really is something that impacts everything. And it also impacts our trust. You know, we may not be trusting with certain individuals or new people that come into our lives because of our traumatic experiences. So, it really does impact everything about us or has the potential to impact everything about us, depending on how we’re managing it and healing from it.

Using The Right Language To Talk About Suicide And Mental Health

Quinton Askew (9:42)

I know one of the things this year too, we [211 Maryland] tried to focus on mental health, but also focusing, working with the Behavioral Health Administration about reducing stigma and the language that we use, making sure as we promote things and talk about it, that we’re not using language that may trigger and affect others. How does language help or harm individuals that we’re trying to help, trying to talk to, just trying to share information?

Brandon Johnson (10:05)

I think it’s important when we are engaging with people, especially people with lived experiences, we don’t want to isolate individuals who have experienced the things that we’re talking about and make them feel less than, you know, I know people talk about saying a person is crazy or doing things like that. And, also a lot of the language around mental health has been incorporated into our daily language as slang. So, we may say this person’s OCD or this person’s acting bipolar, or this person is schizophrenic, without actually taking into consideration what that really means and how stigmatizing that is to a person who may be bipolar, right? Who may be schizophrenic, who may have OCD. In trivializing, their experiences to a slang term use, usually interrogatory to someone else is, is something that can be damaging even down to suicidal ideation.

I tell people all the time to shift language from committed suicide to dying by suicide, to someone who we don’t want to stigmatize and criminalize someone who felt so hopeless that they felt the need to make an attempt on their life. And, so we want to change the language. So, people feel that they can have the conversations in a safe space and not be harmed, initially just by the language before they even have it as a chance to experience the potential for hope and recovery.

Mental Health Support

Quinton Askew (11:36)

I read recently a National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Data Brief. A study found 24% of Black and Hispanic men, ages 18 to 24, who experienced daily feelings of anxiety or depression were likely to use mental health services compared to 45% of non-Hispanic white men. Why is that?

Brandon Johnson (11:54)

It’s a bunch of issues. I would say first, it’s definitely an access issue. Is mental health affordable? Is it affordable in the same way for people with insurance as physical health and specialists there, and we know often it’s not. It’s more expensive and harder to get adequate coverage to someone needing those services.

Also, the mental health system hasn’t always been a safe space for us. There have been challenges there in terms of getting connected to a counselor who may not, or a therapist, who may not look like us and may not be able to adequately understand our experiences to guide us through the therapeutic process. And, so what I tell people now, you know, men of color for sure, is that there are a lot more safe spaces, more space spaces now for us than there has ever been.

Brandon Johnson (12:43)

There are not enough therapists for us, but definitely more so to have these conversations. And so, and then the last thing I would say is still stigma. It’s hard for us because a lot of us have been taught to manage our emotions in a specific way because vulnerability was a challenge for us. It was seen as a weakness in our community for a long time. And also, we didn’t wanna be vulnerable because we thought it could, you know, lead to someone taking advantage of us, you know, in a really harmful way. And so, because of that, some of us are just not in, even in tune or have a relationship with our emotional selves and our emotions and thoughts and feelings. And so it’s a new space for us. And so, some of us are apprehensive about it. So, but I think letting our people know that there are safe spaces would definitely start to heal some of that.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Learn about free and confidential ways to get mental health support from 211 Maryland and the Maryland Department of Health, Behavioral Health Administration.]

Talking About Mental Health Among Men

Quinton Askew (13:30)

It definitely makes sense. Also, with starting conversations with friends and family, hanging out with friends, homeboys, and other close friends, that’s not always conversations that, you know, come up. How you feel that day, what issues are you dealing with? Are you stressed out about anything just generally, as men, sometimes we don’t particularly have that conversation or may be uncomfortable. How how do we begin to shift, as you say, language, to have that conversation with our close friends where it doesn’t take away from our masculinity of saying, okay, just because you might say, you’re not okay,  that doesn’t mean you’re not a man. How do we begin to bring our friends into the fold of having these types of conversations?

Brandon Johnson (14:10)

Yeah. One of the things that I tell brothers is to ask someone, you know, someone close to you, like, ‘Hey, I’m going through some stuff. Like, I wanna chat with you, one on one, like what’s a good time?’

So, I think one, we get kind of put off by asking someone, and they’re like, “Hey, I’m busy right now.” You are trying to connect with somebody like, “Hey, I can’t talk right now.” So, you feel like that wasn’t it. And, so you may not open up again, but I think scheduling that time definitely helps because our brothers wanna support each other, like, right? Like we want to be there for one another. We just have to make sure that we are accessible, letting people be accessible for us as well.

Brandon Johnson (14:51)

And another thing that I’ve talked about is, once you take that opportunity with that brother and say, “Hey, I got some things you want to chat with you about.” And, you do that.

You’re breaking down two silos, you’re breaking down two walls. You’re breaking down the one in front of you that is keeping you from talking to other people. Eventually, you might be breaking down the wall on the other side for that brother to say, “Man, I didn’t know we could do that.” Right? Like I didn’t think that that was an option for us. And, so they may try the same thing with someone else. So, I think starting a conversation there is good as well. And, the other thing I say is there’s no wrong way to kind of bring it up.

Brandon Johnson (15:30)

Cause I know a lot of times we, as men, if there’s something serious like we’ll put it in a joke, or we’ll say it kind of like really quickly, and we’ll put it out and not put it out there fully. But, if bringing it up in jest is your first way of exploring, like getting those emotions out, do that. Take that opportunity and do that.

I think it’s just like any other muscle. You have to train it to get used to it and being vulnerable, being open, and talking about our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It takes time to get comfortable with, because we’re not familiar with them.

So, take those times. Find a way to do it. Send it to someone in a text. First, talk it through with someone else first. All those things are totally okay. And, to do it on your time when you’re ready when you feel comfortable.

Reaching And Talking With Youth

Quinton Askew (16:19)

Yeah, definitely great points. At 211, we created a texting program – YoungMinds – to stay connected with our young adults during the pandemic. It provides weekly mental health support supportive messages.

I saw where you had a YouTube discussion, in-person discussion, but was on YouTube, with youth. And, just engaging youth about their mental health and just wanted to know like how do you reach our young people? How do we have that conversation?

Brandon Johnson (16:48)

Yeah. I think it’s definitely similar. I think for sure, like giving our young people, the safe space to do that is important, right? Like giving them the opportunity to talk and to be open. A lot of our young people don’t feel heard. They don’t feel like we’re listening to them. You know, they don’t feel like we care about what they’re going through, which isn’t the case.

Sometimes a lot of our parenting and wanting to protect them actually makes them more closed off, and they feel like they can’t reach out and talk to us. So, giving them that safe space and encouraging them to talk to somebody. I think a lot of times, especially I tell parents, we want to be the person that they come and talk to you, but, think back when you were younger, was your parents the person you always wanted to talk to?

Quinton Askew (17:33)

Right?

Brandon Johnson (17:34)

So, telling them if it’s not me, let it be another trusted adult, whether it be a teacher, a coach, admin, another family member, a close friend, like allowing them to have that space. And, for our young people, and I think for adults, we get impatient with them. We can tell something’s wrong, something’s visibly wrong, and they won’t share. And, so you get frustrated and feel like, oh, you know, that they’re withholding information. You know, let them do things on their own time and let them know that you’re a safe place. So, if today is not the day that they want to talk about it, fine. Just say, whenever you’re ready, I’m here, I’m open. And, you know, being able to listen without judgment. And again, I know it’s hard. I’m not saying that any of this is easy, but listening without judgment, allowing them to get the things out before, you know, cutting them off or injecting their own thoughts and feelings into the mix, allowing them to get the words out and allowing them to be heard.

The Impact Of Social Media On Mental Health

Quinton Askew (18:29)

Definitely good points. Does social media play a factor in everything that’s going on with our young adults, even adults, around our mental health?

Brandon Johnson (18:38)

Personal opinion – yes. And, I’ll put it that way. Yeah. I mean, there is more research and stuff coming out every day about the harmful impact of social media. So, it’s not just my opinion. There’s some data backing that specifically around Instagram, for sure.

Cyberbullying has definitely increased. When we were growing up, you got an issue with somebody, the bully was at school. You dealt with it there, or you dealt with it maybe in the neighborhood. But when you went in the house, it was gone, right? Like the house was a safe space. You were away from it.

With cyberbullying, that’s not the case. It’s there. It follows you. Every time you pick up your phone, you could see harmful messages about yourself. You know, young people have gone viral for getting into altercations, a bad picture, an embarrassing moment.

Brandon Johnson (19:28)

Like at any time, those things can go viral, which adds to the stress that our young people are facing.

And then the constant need to compare themselves, to feel that I’m not getting as many likes, nobody cares about this picture. I thought I looked really good here, and nobody liked it. Like those kind of things. It matters to our young people.

If we’re being honest about it, those things that matter to us when we were growing up also, we just didn’t have a platform to take it with us. But when we were getting ready for school, doing stuff, showing up at other events, those things mattered to us too. So, I think with the social media thing, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I don’t think we’re gonna be able to tell young people just turn it off or just log off or just delete the app. It’s not gonna happen. It’s not realistic. So, I think it’s managing. Again, allowing our young people to talk and managing their expectations of social media and helping them to find other ways to deal with the stress of it. Because I think, thinking it’s gonna go anywhere anytime soon, it’s probably not likely.

Hope For Black Mental Health

Quinton Askew (20:30)

That’s true. As we wrap up, what’s your hope for Black mental health?

Brandon Johnson (20:34)

For Black mental health, really, for us to change the conversation. For there to be more safe spaces for us to go to, more therapists and clinicians of color across our community, with the ability to take more clients. I think, as we are in this space, where more people are seeking mental health support, which is fantastic, we don’t have enough therapists to meet the need. There’s a therapist shortage, in general, and particularly in our community. I think we only make up 6- 8% of therapists across the country. I think the number, and when you go into psychologists and psychiatrists, it’s around less than 2%.

So, as we look at those numbers, that just isn’t sustainable. So I want more of us in the field, more of us understanding what the need is and more of us being open about our healing.

I think we can change the conversation with people who look like us, who have said, “Hey, I’ve made a suicide attempt, and I’m still here. Here’s what helped.”

“Hey, I’ve been diagnosed with major depression. This is how I get through it.”

“This is what I deal with and how I manage.”

I think more conversations like that would normalize this in our community. And, we can really foster a stronger environment of healing and recovery for our people.

Connect

Quinton Askew (21:46)

It was something that definitely affects us all. So how can others connect with you follow the great work that you’re doing in the community, with SAMHSA, and some of the other task forces that you’re involved with?

Brandon Johnson (21:56)

Yeah, absolutely. I would say to follow the Black Mental Wellness Lounge. Go to YouTube, type in the Black Mental Wellness Lounge. It will come up. Subscribe. So, you’ll get all of our notifications.

On Instagram, we are at Black Mental Wellness Lounge to connect there.

We’re also there on Facebook as well.

Those people who are interested in the Faith Community Taskforce can go to our website. It’s www.faith-hope-life.org, and you’ll find our materials and our resources there.

Quinton Askew (22:29)

Great. Thank you. Now, Brandon, I wanna thank you again for coming on and having that important discussion with us. Definitely could have been longer, but I appreciate you taking the time out.

Brandon Johnson (22:37)

Absolutely. I appreciate it.

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