An Overlooked Truth of Black Mental Health: Thoughts Do Matter

It’s time to get back to basics when it comes to mental health in the black community. Protesting is powerful. Letter-writing campaigns and online petitions can pack a punch and often produce much-needed emotional satisfaction from taking concrete action. Stable friendships are proven to positively support dealing with stress in life. But after the last protest step has been taken, once that letter or petition is signed and submitted, and when the phone call with the bestie is over, one is left with something more powerful and which affects every other thing done to impact our world and keep sane: thoughts. Black people must believe and live according to the truth that thoughts, like nothing else, shape the person and determine the strength or weakness of mental and emotional health.

As activists and others tackle issues like economic equity, poverty, and mass incarceration, the role of a person’s thoughts and resulting emotions and behavior often gets less attention than do the external forces that contribute to people’s plights. Whether the community is ready to admit it or not, one’s mental and emotional health are both results of and contributors to arriving at and overcoming significant life challenges like economic deprivation and mass incarceration. Blacks have demonstrated fierce resistance to the idea that focusing on an individual’s shortcomings or role in adverse circumstances is unfair and excuses, or at the least, minimizes the actions of institutions and systems. Even President Obama has been accused of playing into the much-maligned ‘respectability politics’ when he has discussed personal responsibility as a component of resilience and advancement past the formidable obstacles young black men face. His response to such criticism is important because it calls on the black community to face some hard truths, one of which is that it’s short-sighted and counterproductive to not acknowledge that facing down realities like prison and poverty require a both/and rather than an either/or approach that addresses individual and institutional roles in people’s circumstances and how one rises above those circumstances.

The sum of one’s thoughts creates an internal mental environment that results in a certain emotional disposition which leads to particular decisions and actions. This is not ‘junk science’ or wives’ tales. Reputable researchers and scientists have produced work which reveals the truth of these realities. Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist and who specializes in neuropsychology, has studied the science of thought for over 20 years. She explains that fear-based thoughts produce fear-based emotions which lead to fear-based actions. This cycle of mental and emotional toxicity causes harmful biochemicals to build in the mind and body, with devastating results. This is a simple concept which is demonstrated over and over in the lives of blacks every day. But it’s not common to hear or see someone whose life trajectory was critically altered who admits the role that their own toxic mental state played in their situation. Enter Shaka Senghor.

As a 14-year old, Mr. Senghor’s world was turned upside down when his parents separated for the first time. As an adolescent, he was not equipped to handle the torrent of negative thoughts that led to anger, confusion, and fear that overtook his mind and emotions. Over the next five years, he became increasingly involved in the Detroit drug trade, and at 19, he shot and killed a man during a drug sale. While in solitary confinement in prison, he had a life-changing moment, which he describes in his new book, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison:

“James Allen’s book As a Man Thinketh had helped me to see that I was responsible for my thoughts and the feelings that they produced. It didn’t matter what other people had done to me; ultimately, I was responsible for my anger, and for the actions that I took in response to it.” P. 3

Part of his healing came when he wrote a letter to the man he killed, in which he wrote:

“I thought walking away from an argument would make me appear weak and make me a loser…I was afraid, and I allowed my fears to dictate my actions…I became consumed by fear and paranoia…I became desperately angry, because anger was the only emotion that could conceal the fear.”  Pp. 3-4

Amid discussions about how to reduce the prison population emerges a reliable voice who shows at least part of the answer: we all must deal with our thoughts and emotions if we have any hope of affecting our actions.  To President Obama’s point, Mr. Senghor also advocates for prison reform including use of solitary confinement. There is no more eloquent way to say mental health matters.

Mr. Senghor’s life reinforces the fact that potentially the most effective way to help young black men and women navigate away from devastating consequences in their lives is to show them how to face and change the way they think, feel and act. In her bestselling book, Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking and Health Dr. Leaf describes a research-derived way of changing toxic thoughts that begins with simply becoming aware of the content of one’s thoughts and knowing the source of those thoughts.

Evaluate the sources: social and mainstream media, including affinity media, people attached to our daily interactions: teachers, coaches, parents/family members, friends, medical providers, law enforcement. Do they stimulate negative or positive thoughts and emotions?

Identify actual thoughts and patterns: when reading tweets on social media, or interacting with co-workers, family, and others, what thoughts come? When reading an account of mistreatment or injustice, what thoughts immediately form? What are the feelings?

These skills should be integrated into every mentoring program and added to school and church enrichment programs. Also, current efforts targeting self-care for adults should include personal time during which people work their way through this exercise and develop strategies for improving their mental and emotional health.