A New Approach to Mental Health
VIDEO PROFILE: How a black psychologist is centering black men and their unique needs in his drive for black wellness.
This was the first word printed on Dr. Obari Cartman’s graphic T-shirt as he walked into the Chicago Public Library in Wicker Park. A warm gust of wind followed him through the door, shaking his loose-fit jeans. As I scanned his custom shirt, it continued:
It was the same shirt I’d seen him wearing when I looked him up on Facebook, sometimes in red, sometimes in black. He approached me with a gentle smile and a warm twinkle in his eyes. His face was kind but purposeful. “Should I keep this on or take it off?” he asked softly, pointing at his black and red fitted-cap, as I attached a microphone to his collar. We laughed at the unspoken assumption that it didn’t make him look like a doctor in my video. He looks nothing like the stereotypical bespectacled white men in his field who come to mind when thinking of psychologists.
Obari obtained his PhD in clinical and community psychology from Georgia State University. As the president of the Chicago chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists and the program director for Real Men Charities, he works in Chicago’s South and West sides to make mental health and wellness accessible to and approachable by communities of color, focusing especially on young, black men. Growing up in Richton Park, Ill., he aspired to help people from communities like his early on.
“When I was in school I was always doing peer mentoring and student programs where you got to listen, talk, problem solve and talk about issues,” he said. “I always loved that stuff. I always loved supporting my friends and talking about issues that were not the typical stuff.”
Obari is interested in fostering safe spaces that provide support and comfort for people. He also recognized that the mental health facilities that already existed lacked representation of a specific demographic. “The focus on young black men in particular came out of being out in the field where there wasn’t a lot of me. Even in college, the higher I got, the less black men I saw. I just started to realize that there was mostly women doing this work now,” he said.
Not seeing anyone like him in the mental health field steered Obari to focus his attention on young, black men -- who are usually excluded from mental health and wellness practices and discussion.
For a long time, mental health has been stigmatized in black communities, Obari told me. As a result, black people have been wary of institutional mental health care. Obari attributes this to an embedded historical distrust of healthcare professionals, stemming from incidents like the Tuskegee experiments. He aims to create spaces for men to reflect on their lived experiences, tap into their emotional and spiritual experiences, look at the ways they are brought up, and interrogate how our culture continues to disparage them and affect their mental wellness.
“There is a culture of keeping stuff in the house, using church as a way to deal with issues, to be a super woman or man. There’s pressure to keep it together and to not talk about pain or struggling, to just survive,” he said.
Obari wants to use his platform to curate content and a curriculum that teaches young men to do more than “just survive”. To do that, he believes that it is important to bring awareness to the ways in which “modern, sophisticated systems” like mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex reinforce control, punishment and dominance as a way of exhorting power, and how those have trapped black men for a very long time. His work leans into restorative justice, the idea being that mental and criminal rehabilitation can come from personal and community reconciliation. It is inspired by a drive to find alternative ways of having these discussions.
“Restorative justice allows me to be in schools and use misbehavior, these “incidents” in schools as opportunities to have these conversations about social and emotional development in ways that the schools traditionally don’t,” he explained.
He emphasized that in mental health and justice institutions, a human element is stripped away from these young men and they simply become the stereotypical “problematic black boy”.
“A book came out of that and from the book came some curriculum,” he said, referencing Lady’s Man: Conversations for Young Black Men about Relationships and Manhood, which Obari wrote in 2015. “All of it really just aims to serve as a guide to help young men navigate through a system that has specific barriers for them, and that there are aspects of black male socialization and culture that needs a lot of deep interrogation.”
Obari is very critical about current psychological practices and how they fail to take into consideration the lingering effects of trauma, as well as the current obstacles to black men. He believes that there is a lot of context missing as to how mental healthcare is packaged for black men.
“Part of my training had a lot to do with learning white psychology. I’ve got a bunch of old white men in my head from years and years of writing papers and reading books from a perspective that sometimes does not serve our people,” he said. His shoulders shook as he laughed quietly and told me about his early studies of Freud, Skinner and Watson.
His approach centers around community engagement. He uses relationships in a way that traditional psychological practices have been taught not to. Obari explains that in his training, a lot of emphasis was put on keeping distance between himself and the people he works with.
However, he found that there was always a skepticism from the groups as to what gave him the right to have them share their stories and experiences with him. In order to get these young men to talk to him, share with him and allow him in, he had to share his experiences as a black man too. This allows them to connect as one black man to another. He customizes his approach to accommodate them.
“Folks are starting to realize there is a need to create more space where people are comfortable, where they see black faces having these conversations,” he said. “Where they understand that we are not just cogs in a machine of the same traditional healthcare and medical system and that our approach to psychology and mental health connects to culture in ways that are deliberate.”
Obari wants to make sure to approach being mentally healthy from a black perspective because that’s the narrative and context that is missing right now.
He was involved in planning the first annual Black Mental Wellness Weekend in Chicago, a collaboration between the Chicago Association of Black Psychologists, Sista Aafya and the Chicago Association of Black Social Workers. The organizers aimed to create a space that was open to and encouraging of discussing mental wellness in black communities in a drastic new way. Obari explains that the lack of discussion in these communities is driven by an immense stigmatization of the topic, and an expectation of people of color to be a “superman or superwoman”.
The weekend centered around various events that incorporated arts, culture, holistic medicine and activities that engaged attendees in inventive ways.
“We had films, reiki, yoga, self-defense classes, art therapy, drumming; things that represent lifestyle and culture for black people, connecting to having conversations about depression, anxiety, phobias and bipolar disorder,” he explained.
The weekend was designed to offer more than just access to mental health care, but also teach practices for approaching mental wellness in the attendee’s day-to-day lives, and equip them with the language of mental health to make it all more approachable.
Most importantly, Obari told me, the event was purposefully positioned to happen during the cold, gray months in Chicago, when the sun goes into hiding and deprives communities of color from their much needed, natural medicine. For some it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but for others it’s the most difficult.
“Sun is real medicine for black people. When it gets cold in Chicago, people get more isolated and stay inside more,” he said, and having this event during these months allowed people to come together in community, support each other, reach out and network with various kinds of healers.
“Mental health is everybody’s issue. Everybody’s problem and everybody’s solution,” he said.
Obari’s unique perspective on what mental health and wellness should look like in communities of color emphasizes the need for understanding black history to understand the black experience. Systems of mental health care were not created using a model that suited these communities and Obari is adamant about changing that. He wants to make sure to craft a narrative that accommodates black people because they have been left out of this conversation for too long.