The Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and William James College Partner to Address Black Male Mental Health Via New Initiative

two men talking

Marc Abelard, William James College Director of Strategic Initiatives and Director of the Behavioral Health Service Corps with Rahsaan Hall, President and CEO for the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts

Last June, President Rahsaan D. Hall, Esq. arrived at the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM) with a unique perspective: As a civil rights lawyer, former prosecutor and ordained Reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church, Hall is well-versed in the criminal legal system; he also knew addressing underlying factors—like addiction, poverty, and mental illness—had the potential to strengthen local communities by diverting folks from prison and providing workforce development opportunities.

“Seeing the rise in mental health issues in the Black community, especially among Black men, inspired me to support a population that’s been historically overlooked,” says Hall who, in his first year at the helm of the 105-year-old civil rights organization, secured grant funding from Takeda, a global science-driven, digital biopharmaceutical company dedicated to creating better health for people and a brighter future for the world, to launch a three-pronged Health Equity Initiative. In addition to programs for Clinical Trials and a Nursing Pipeline Apprenticeship Pilot, ULEM is partnering with William James College on the Black Male Mental Health Initiative (BMMHI) which seeks to address the unique challenges Black men face when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing. 

“Knowing how prevalent mental health is in our society at present, and making a concerted effort to focus specifically on the needs of Black men—an underserved slice of the population—is really exciting,” says Marc Abelard, MEd, MPP, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Center for Workforce Development at William James College of the nascent collaboration with ULEM, one that allows each organization to bring their respective strengths to the shared work of supporting Black men and their mental health. 

“Many Black men don’t seek professional help [addressing their mental health needs] in part because they can’t find professionals who look like them,” says Hall, pointing to a dearth of diverse providers in the United States, where just 2% of psychologists identify as Black. This fact, coupled with lingering stigma surrounding mental health in Black communities, sheds light on the need for more avenues of support in order to remedy the problem. After extensive conversation, a dual purpose for the initiative took root: The first aims to provide resources for Black men via a directory of mental health services and BIPOC providers; the second seeks to recruit more Black men into the profession via career opportunities in behavioral health through one of several career-ladder programs. It is fitting that William James College and The Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts are launching this exciting partnership in July, which is recognized as BIPOC Mental Health Month as well as a call to action for Black Men to check their own mental health on July 18th—Black Men’s Mental Health Day. 

Understanding—and Addressing—Disparities

Centuries of racism in the United States have led to a disproportionate number of health consequences among communities of color. In April 2021, under the leadership of the 2024 WJC Commencement speaker Dr. Rochelle Walensky, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared racism a serious public health threat—the effects of which have been shown to cause increased rates of poverty and incarceration and reduced access to affordable housing and healthcare. 

“It’s imperative that we acknowledge the structural barriers that have historically been detrimental to Black men and prevented them from showing up in spaces as their full selves,” says Abelard. By the numbers, Black Americans seek mental health treatment just over half as often as white Americans (25% as opposed to 40%, respectively) and twice as many lack health insurance (almost 10% as opposed to 5.2%) when compared with individuals who identify as non-Hispanic white. 

“Over the years, and the generations, [carrying this burden] takes a toll mentally—especially in the absence of space in which to talk freely about how taxing it is on a day-to-day basis,” says Abelard whose passion for the burgeoning partnership is palpable. The intersection of ULEM’s long standing social justice work in the community and William James College’s dedication to providing culturally competent mental health services to underserved communities stands to send a powerful message to the community-at-large about the importance of not only welcoming Black men into the conversation surrounding mental health but also carving out a space specifically designed for them.

Directory of Resources

“Research shows that Black men are dealing with a significant number of mental health issues that often go undiagnosed due to a reluctance to speak about mental health challenges for fear there is no safe space in which to do so,” says Abelard, underscoring that these mental health conversations are not void in the Black community. 

“They’ve been happening for centuries, they just look different,” he says of a robust array of support services unfolding organically in third spaces integral to the Black community—from barbershops to church basements—where Black men are able to shed their armor, speak their minds, and receive support.

To ensure access to resources that do exist, William James College and the Urban League are collaborating to build a database of available resources and give them a home on the ULEM website. Raising the profile of those services already being offered and connecting those entities already working with groups of Black men to ensure available resources are made known. Ditto for meeting folks, quite literally, where they are.

“If you are able to have an informal conversation in the barber’s chair that leaves you feeling lighter of your burdens, that space has served a purpose,” says Abelard speaking to the initiative’s  target demographic, one that often shuts down rather than opens up in the absence of space for masculinity and vulnerability to coexist—a trend the BMMHI seeks to change. 

Pipeline Programs for Workforce Development

It is well-documented that Black people in general—and Black men in particular—are underrepresented in most professions, especially those that require degrees as well as board certifications or professional licenses. Hall is less inclined to dwell on the deep-seated historical reasons as to why this is and more keen on changing the current and future landscape.

“These are important roles that need to be filled, where representation actually matters and can make a meaningful difference—either in the quality of care that's provided or the invitation to access the care—because someone feels like they can connect with a provider who has an appreciation for, if not shares their own, lived experience,” says Hall.

From a workforce development lens, the Urban League recognizes that there is a diverse range of individuals—from high school graduates on up—already doing this work in their respective communities who could take what they are already doing to the next level by getting credentialed.

“If someone is facilitating a men's group at their place of worship, or leading a group of formerly incarcerated individuals in a conversation about the challenges of reentering society, they very well may have the innate skills and abilities needed to pursue a professional career as a therapist or a clinician,” says Hall. While workforce development is one of five pillar areas at the Urban League, the BMMHI is their first endeavor to create pipelines in the mental health and behavioral health services field.

“That’s the big picture, to help folks in the community—who may or may not have considered counseling as a career path—to access the resources needed to actualize their dreams,” says Abelard. While Hall is quick to acknowledge that this work is not new, many hands make light work of alleviating the problem. 

“The need is so great that more organizations with names and reputations—particularly a 105-year-old civil rights organization and a college boasting 50 years spent educating mental health professionals—are an added benefit to the broader conversation,” says Hall, who sees the partnership with William James College as a natural fit.

“The nature of our work and the mission of our organization—serving historically marginalized and disadvantaged communities to bring about economic self sufficiency and economic development—aligns perfectly with addressing some of the mental health concerns that can often be a barrier for people to financial well being and economic self sufficiency,” says Hall, emphasizing employment opportunities in mental health stand to generate income capable of changing the trajectory of an individual’s or family's life. The partnership is poised to fling open the doors of possibility through a variety of options—at the certificate and undergraduate as well as graduate and postdoc levels—poised to create a career-ladder pipeline for more Black men to enter the profession. Drawing on a track record of attracting individuals who approach their work as more than just a job, William James College aims to subsidize these opportunities through philanthropic endeavors in order to provide them at no cost to participants.

 “The demographics of their student body speaks volumes about what William James College has been able to do, particularly as it relates to diversifying the behavioral health field,” says Hall whose goal is to leverage the funds received from Takeda Pharmaceuticals to attract additional donors and do more with this initiative going forward.

“[Black men] want to be able to discuss painful and traumatic events, or simply process life, with someone they feel understands them and has an appreciation for their lived experience,” says Hall, underscoring the importance of representation in the mental health field.

Moving the Needle Forward

“While the doors are slowly opening to yield freer access [to mental health care] than Black men have traditionally had, the reluctance to seek that access remains,” says Abelard, pointing to notable celebrities of color—among them actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; rapper Kendrick Lamar; and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott—as paving the way for other Black men through their open and public dialogue about their own mental health challenges.

“It’s been a slow trickle down to underserved communities, which is why we are thankful that ULEM—a strong voice in the community, both historically and presently—has taken up this mantle and chosen to partner with William James College,” says Abelard of a combined 155 years of service to the community-at-large on behalf of the two institutions. 

“We’ve been in this space for a very, very long time, [and] partnering with a community-based agency, given the traction mental health has gained in mainstream society, has aligned us to be more impactful,” says Abelard. 

“When you see a need, and your heart and mission are in the right place, it’s hard to turn away and not do something about it.”