Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Mental Health in the African American Community


Martin Luther King - FBJordan Burnham is a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau. Bring him to your campus to speak about mental health!

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we all get a chance to step back, acknowledge, and appreciate the work and sacrifice put forth to make progress for equality in America.

Being the leader and face of the Civil Rights Movement was not glamorous, but Martin Luther King, Jr. felt the responsibility to lead that charge for change in our country. As an African American, I am grateful for the freedom and rights that were made possible for me through the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

One of those rights is being able to talk about mental health and seek treatment, but why is that conversation so taboo inside of our community?

Over the last seven years of speaking, this is an issue that became more and more apparent to me after talking to so many others about their experiences.

One conversation that stuck out to me was one I had with a young lady, who was African American, at a college at which I spoke. She told me about how her younger brother was in middle school and went to talk to the school counselor about some of the issues he was going through. He said to the counselor, who was the same ethnicity, that he was thinking about suicide.

The counselor responded by saying, “You’re not going to commit suicide; that’s something white boys do.”

The saddest thing about that story is that I wasn’t even surprised to hear it. Part of that is because admitting struggles with mental health still isn’t instilled as acceptable in the African American culture.

To be honest, I feel a responsibility to be a face for mental health, depression and suicide prevention because I still don’t see enough faces speaking on this subject that mirror my skin color. I firmly believe that if you see a lack of representation in your line of work (whether it be your gender, age, ethnicity, etc.), you should do what you can to narrow that gap.

One thing that I hear often is that there is a need for speakers like myself, and I’m fully aware that part of that has to do with me being African American. I’ve had students come up to me and say that when they heard there was a speaker coming to talk on suicide and depression, they pictured an older white male. I’ve had minority students come talk to me who said they wouldn’t have come to the presentation if they didn’t see my face on the posters around their campus.

To me, that means that there is still progress to be made as far as who is speaking about these topics, and who people identify with mental health. There are definitely people in the black community who consider mental health and seeking therapy as a “white people thing” because there has not yet been a piece of our history establishing that talking about mental health is both acceptable and not a weakness.

The only thing consistently told to black people when it comes to their mental health is to never complain about their circumstances, which originates from slavery, and there are too many still enslaved in that mindset. It’s the mindset that if you struggle with your mental health and speak about it then you’re complaining, and both your mental health and your complaints make you weak.

The more I travel and speak on this subject, the more I understand that I can’t do this forever. That’s why I hope that putting in the time and work to be a part of mental health advocacy paves the path for others, who also see a lack of representation of their culture, to do the same.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I get a chance to truly step back and appreciate the progress that was made years ago to allow the rights that myself and so many others have today. But I also step back and challenge myself to use those rights and privileges to continue progress in any way that I can.