When we think about the topic of mental health and everything that it comes with, typically there is a particular image that most people see in their minds. If you could describe a session of mental health and words it would probably look a little like an older middle-aged gentleman, most likely not someone of color, in a suit sitting in a chair with his legs crossed, making clicking noises with a pen as he asks the stereotypical questions in the same monotone voice. Lying on his couch would be a stressed out and frazzled, perhaps privileged, woman (again, probably not someone of color) spilling her woes about things that she can’t quite “get a handle on”.

Unfortunately, this is how many of us have come to see mental health and this is what we think a relationship with therapy looks like. Jay Barnett, former football player pro turned mental health pro, has been changing the game, the picture, and the conversation about mental health for the last several years. With his passion for demystifying the topic of therapy in African American families, Barnett’s mission has caught the attention of many of the public figures that now stand at the forefront of the Mental Health Revolution.

Let’s get to know a little more about Mental Health Visionary, Jay Barnett! 

In your former professional life as we know you are a professional football player. How did you know that you wanted to make the transition from professional athlete to now working in mental health?

For me, it was more so about identifying what my purpose was as a man. Outside of what I did as an athlete, I needed to find my purpose beyond that. After experiencing so many things and wanting to be a bridge to healing for others like myself that have experienced some of those same things, I knew I needed to be of service in the mental health capacity in some way. I dealt with so many challenges mentally, emotionally, and psychologically, two suicide attempts and I am still here so I knew there was a connection to finding my way through that and my higher purpose.  I wanted to really impact young men so I became a mentor in group homes working on emotional recovery programs for an all-girls facility. I then moved into a girls and boys facility and took all of my experiences and created a program that would allow them to be open and to have a  face to face relationship with someone that encouraged them to see themselves outside of the situations that they were in. One of the toughest things for me was being able to see myself outside my situation and I wanted to help other young people overcome that challenge.

With mental health and therapy being such a taboo subject in our black families, what challenges do you face in getting your message across with families of color and especially with men of color?

You know, in our culture, we tend to look down on sharing our personal things with other people. We prefer to fast and pray so therapy or counseling is never really talked about. We grow up being taught that the things that happen inside our families and homes are never to be talked about to anyone else. I grew in Mississippi where this belief was strong. When I decided to turn to therapy, it was about embracing what that space gave to me and for the first time, at that moment I felt freedom and liberation. For me, the driving force became being able to provide that same safe space for a black man.

I let it be known that when entering this space, this is a safe space.  I show you my scars and what that does is help ease your fear or shame about your scars because we all have them. What I am doing is allowing someone to pause and think and address the thing that is causing depression, which a symptom of an underlying issue. I thank God that He allowed me to be an athlete because I think that this is a thing that allows black men to be more receptive to my position. When men see an athlete, they see that stern and masculine figure so they have a certain perception in their minds, and to hear that someone in that position has gone through some of the same things as them, takes that wall down some. When I show up, I’m in Js and a hoodie and they see that I’m just like them.

Many of us were born into families that normalize secrecy and sweeping things under the rug and that is a form of dysfunction and what I want to do is normalize healing.

So, tell us about how this mission led to one of the current projects that you’re working on with Taraji Henson.

It’s so funny how it all came to be. The year 2020 was a year that no one was mentally prepared for, and for me in being consistent with who I am and what I do, I  just started creating a space for people to talk about their real-life mental experiences. I did some IG lives with some of my celebrity friends like Essence Atkins, Christian Keys, Laila Ali, and  John Murray and we just had conversations as real people, not on the celebrity level, just real conversations. From there, someone from her team reached out to me via email. We talked and connected to partner with her in her foundation which is the Boris P. Henson foundation and her unique dynamic was that she wanted to provide a safe space for African American men by providing mental health resources. Her mission was connected to her father that dealt with his own mental health issues and so I thought this was a beautiful alignment to partner with this amazingly talented beautiful black woman and to also be partnered where our missions are aligned. It was almost as if everything was a perfect storm because of the way everything was aligned.

“As black men, we have to move from surviving off destructive and unhealthy mechanisms.”

Even though you have many amazing things in the works already, we want to know what’s next for you!

Aside from the show that I just did with Taraji, which aired on January 27th, my partner, good friend, and brother Marcus Smith, also a former NFL player and  I have partnered up to do is show called “The King’s Table”.  At this table, we are two men talking about everything. We talk about emotions, daddy issues, molestation, physical abuse, we talk about it all. He represents the perspective of the everyday man and I provide the perspective of the expert and so that show is what we are working on and we shot a couple of episodes and are speaking with a few networks. So far, people love it. I am also a part of this tour called the “Heal Tour”  and what we hope to do is go around the country to HBCUs and high schools and really connect the dots on mental health in sports. We really are passionate about athletes and especially black athletes because a lot of them are praised for their athletic ability but these kids are oftentimes suffering mentally and emotionally. A lot of these athletes look at their coaches as their father figures and when that relationship is no longer there, they feel lost so issues like that are what we hope to tackle in this next phase.

You can learn more about Jay Barnett and stay up to date with his journey to changing the conversation about mental health by following him on all social media platforms @kingjaybarnett.

Featured Image by Kauwane Burton