Adia Harris, Contributing Writer
Throughout the past month, Ourselves|Black has covered a range of mental health related topics as they concern academic success. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Richard Taylor, Jr., a mental health leader and advocate who continuously shares his own stories as a young black man from the Southside of Chicago who grappled with his own mental health struggles and resurfaced with impactful lessons learned. In this interview, he candidly shares mental trials and triumphs that took place during his own academic career.
OB: Given stories that you’ve shared about your life, you undoubtedly moved through instances of mental and emotional upheaval. Can you recall what first sparked the realization that your mental and emotional health was something of significance?
RT: It was after my final suicide attempt in college, but it wasn’t immediately after. It was more over the course of the next few years. I saw that it represented the destructive lifestyle that I had allowed myself to become entangled with. It was an investment I was kind of forced to make because after it happened, the college I went to stipulated that I stay off probation for two years and I was required to see a school psychologist. It was during that time of working with the psychologist that I was like ‘dude, your mental health is actually really important!’ I also think it was because of my transformation from it. It’s one thing to invest your time, it’s another thing when you actually see results.
OB: In your book Unashamed, you catalog several external events that occurred in high school that took a toll on you, from being bullied because of your weight to finding out you had a health condition that would prevent you from pursuing a football career before you even graduated. How’d you cope with these obstacles mentally, and what emotional support did you feel was available to you during this time in your life?
RT: I didn’t cope. I didn’t cope positively. Those questions go hand and hand, because I felt like I was alone in the battle. In my book, Love Between the Scars, I talk a lot about the stigma plagued around mental health that caused me to want to keep my mouth shut when it came to dealing with the anger, depression and rage that I felt, which led to a suicidal lifestyle.
I was actually bullied in grammar school. In high school, I became the bully to a certain degree because everything had changed as far as my appearance and what I was doing. But I ended up falling flat on my face once I couldn’t play ball anymore. The circles I was running with weren’t around anymore, and everything kind of spiraled out of control. I allowed it to, being so conditioned that mental health wasn’t something I was allowed to speak to because I’m black. I felt like an outcast, dealing with something black people don’t deal with and my coping mechanisms literally became the very things that presented themselves as struggles early on, starting with self-mutilation and leading all the way up to attempting suicide.
OB: Looking back do you believe there were resources that should have been there, that just were not?
RT: It’s really more that it just wasn’t talked about. In my family, it was something that weak people or only white people deal with. I thought, well I’m black, so clearly I just need to strap up my boots and keep it moving because there is nothing I can do about this. I always feel there could have been better resources, specifically in the public school system, that aren’t. But not only were they not there, the awareness of the issues wasn’t there. That’s one reason why I didn’t know what was possible. Schools may have x, y and z, but at the same time they aren’t making them known. Schools can spend hours talking about sports teams and school pride but may only spend five minutes on those kinds of issues.
OB: Did you ever feel that you had to choose between your emotional well being and your academic advancement in school? Why or why not?
RT: It wasn’t like I felt I had to choose between the two. I was in such a dark space that I didn’t even care about my emotional well being. I got to a place where I felt either way I’m a failure and I was flopping on both sides; 1.4, 1.6 and 1.8 were my GPAs my first three semesters in college and my grades were a direct depiction of exactly what I was going through internally.
OB: What is a mental/emotional pitfall you believe students should be aware of in their academic life?
RT: [Not] being aware of their environment and what they choose to take in from that environment. I talk about this a lot in my second book, about ‘starving the beast’. I feel a part of the awareness is that we invite certain things in. We always talk about you accept what you allow and I feel that’s what happens unfortunately. We begin to accept whatever comes into our space and allow it to unfold in our lives.
OB: Is there an experience that you can recall where you had to make a conscious decision of what you would not allow in your space?
RT: Many! (laughs) But I’m thinking of when I got back to [college] and I was on probation, on the verge of being kicked out. That next semester was like do or die. That being the case, I got into a space of realizing I can’t keep doing the same thing if I want to be successful. It [caused] me to have an understanding of what destruction looked like and the times when productivity was actually taking place and then expound on that.
OB: Can you share an effective strategy that you were able to use to maintain balance between your mental well being and academic success?
RT: I think what it boils down to is that it’s one thing to just acknowledge [problems], but it’s another to instill an application around it. It wasn’t just being aware of things that made me feel a certain way like the stress from classes or working while in school, sometimes it was even the feeling of being inadequate because I didn’t think I was as properly prepared compared to some of my colleagues when it came to the schooling they’d had. I’d feel like I was stupid and that I didn’t belong. So beyond just acknowledging the thoughts and feelings I was having, I had to know and understand them to apply better alternatives. It’s so easy to drop down in GPA and score wise, but it is super hard to climb that ladder to get back up. I was struggling to just get back to the borderline and it was a battle in itself. I had to really start applying alternatives to the very things that were eating me up.
OB: A common theme found in your work is dealing with emotional wounds in order to grow and move forward. What advice would you give students in helping them to identify what might be holding them back mentally?
RT: I think when it comes to identifying [emotional wounds] you have to be open to all possibilities, because a lot of times we shun all things that have to do with the intrapersonal. The concept of ‘starving the beast’ is that most of the time the ‘beast’, the very thing we deal with, is us. We look to externally blame it on other things, but we can’t turn a blind eye to our own habits and lifestyle. You have to be real with yourself, and during that time you have to avoid condemnation by understanding that you made a mistake but it doesn’t determine the rest of your life. You are worth more than the sum of your past mistakes, which means you still have a chance to get it right. By avoiding condemnation, I always encourage people to let their layers peel back because we are not one-dimensional. We may find more ugly truths about ourselves, so you do have to be careful about not running back to your old ways, but see them as the truth of what you’ve done, not the truth of where you’re going.
OB: Last question, you are a big advocate of TRiO, a federal outreach program that provides student support services. How was that program beneficial to you, and are there any other resources that you would recommend to students?
RT: TRiO was literally something that saved my life. It just so happened one of the program employees saw my story and reached out to me. He introduced me to the program and got me around the right people and resources. The stories of so many mentors and students with the program in colleges and high schools across the country all have some kind of trial and tribulation that led to their triumph. It’s an amazing resource because it provides a chance to see your life and what it could be in action, and I’m a firm believer that behavior changes with belief.
As far as other resources, there are always extracurriculars on campus, but in a deeper context it’s realizing support groups are there. A lot of fraternities, sororities and other groups are becoming more conscious. The same way organizations might provide study tables for athletes; they have started to provide the same kind of checks for wellness. It’s really about being around the right circles - not just in mainstay groups - that can provide the most impact in your life. Another outlet for me was being in the gospel choir in college. I remember individuals not involved in the choir at all would come just to listen to the music because it lifted their spirits and helped them through. It’s amazing where you can find your help when you are open-minded.
Richard Taylor is a motivational speaker who has published three books sharing inspirational messages through his own story. To find out more about him and his work, visit unashamednation.com