Dr. Nicolas Grier is an Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Spiritual Care, & Counseling. Dr. Grier is also a mental health therapist and author.

  • How do churches minister to the mental health of Black men
  • The stigma surrounding mental health and receiving help in Black Community
  • Common struggles that black men are facing today
  •  Early beginnings of Black Psychology
  • Dr. Grier’s view on APA’s formal apology to people of color in promoting, perpetuating, and failing to challenge racism.
  • Dr. Grier’s Book, Care for the Mental and Spiritual Health of Black Men

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Carrie: Welcome to Hope For Anxiety and OCD episode 70. Today on the show, I have an interview with Dr. Nicholas Grier, an ordained minister and therapist and author of The Care For The Mental and Spiritual Health of black men. He’s gonna talk with us about mental health in the black community. One of the things I really value is hearing from people who have other lived experiences or cultural backgrounds that I don’t possess to try and I guess understand where different people are coming from because I see all different types of clients and it helps me to be able to empathize with others. So let’s go ahead and dive into this interview. 

I know that I had talked with you earlier that this particular episode was kind of prompted by something a close friend of mine said in an earlier episode, episode nine, actually. And I was asking her about her experience with mental health in the African American church. And she said, “well, you know, the pastors in those churches are like ostriches, and they just have their head buried in the sand, they don’t wanna look at their own issues”. And so I really thought, okay, there’s somebody in this community that understands mental health that we could talk to and really combine those two worlds. And I thought it would be awesome to provide an alternate perspective that was her lived experience. And so I was glad that she shared that, but I’m just curious, has it been a challenge for you. Since you work with churches to know how to minister to the mental health of black men?

Dr. Nicholas: That’s an excellent question and observation. The first thing I consider is the fact that there are a number of black churches, right?  so there’s a.

Carrie: Sure.

Dr. Nicholas: Diversity of black congregations. And so from that perspective, I think we have to go into that question, realizing that, like there are different ways that your various clergy, respond to this, very same question.

So for instance, last summer, I was working with a number of clergy on the south side of Chicago with a grant that really focused on this very thing that you’re talking about, you know, so the mental wellbeing of clergy on the south side of Chicago, and most of them were African American. There were, you know, 40, 50 clergy who were part of this program. And so from my experience in that program. In administering that grant. My goodness that the clergy were more than willing to dive into, their own, you know, experiences with, the heavy load that many of them carry the emotions, the psychological burdens that are placed on them. 

So I think when we think about response to this question, we have to think about, okay, who are the specific black congregations and black clergy that we’re talking about? Because my experience, especially recently, there’s a lot of openness from, you know, black clergy really saying that, “Hey, this is something urgent that we need to reflect on”. So not only was that a particular experience that I’ve had with clergy, but most recently there’s another denomination. That’s also, you know, asking me to work with them on developing a program to help their clergy deal with the mental health experiences.

Now, I think part of that is also who do clergy feel like they can trust specifically who do black clergy. Well, they can trust. So, so I realize that perhaps have maybe a little bit of an inside edge, if you will, just to take very seriously the experiences of clergy. So from this perspective, because I am an ordained clergy, cause I also happen to have a PhD and a licensed professional counselor. Well, they tend to trust me, in that sense. But I think part of that too is the ways in which I try to engage them. So I engage them with a lot of respect, deep appreciation for who they are. So I think all those things affect how we think about mental health and black faith communities. 

Carrie: Sure. And obviously, if you’ve already been there and had some of that lived experience of ministering in the church, that’s huge. So in the counseling community, we’re always like working really hard to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and receiving help. Do you believe that black people face more challenging stigma to receiving mental health services? I don’t know for example, in the past I’ve had someone share with me that it felt very punitive for them almost like you’re gonna to therapy, but it was kind of like a punishment like you’re kid that’s in trouble and you’re going to therapy now. And it just, wasn’t a positive experience for that, for that individual who was in the black community. 

Dr. Nicholas: Well, I’d be curious to know more about that person’s experience. And you know, this to me is, you know, back to my emphasis on focusing on particular situations. And so each situation has its own nuances. And my sense, when I think about a type of situation like this is. That there are a number of, I think, complexities that one must engage. When we think about how do we, address the experiences, that the emotional, mental, and psychological experiences of black folks going to therapy. So in one sense now, which is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about the work of coloring mental health collective, which is organization.

I started that advocates and organizes for the mental well-being of black and brown people. One of the things we’re passionate about with that work is to say that, “Hey you can tell a black person to go to therapy”. But if they’re going to therapy with a therapist, who’s practicing out of theories and Ideologies that actually perpetuate colonization racism and things that sort, without them even being aware of that, then that can actually be very detrimental to the black person going to therapy.

So in actuality, they’re actually worse off for going to therapy. If they have someone who’s not practicing out of theories and ideology, that’s actually helpful for black people. So this is why I’m so passionate about reflecting on how can we help equip clinicians with theories and practices that actually nurture the holistic wellbeing of black and brown folks. So this can be done by taking very seriously, you know, for instance, the literature of black psychology of womanness in Mahata psychologies, right? So there are a number of resources that a clinicians can use. So I think that’s part of what’s at stake in this type of situation, when a person says, okay, feels are punitive when I’m going into therapy.

Well, I mean, my experience at doing therapy with black folks is that they often like wanna meet multiple times a week and even want to go over the sessions. I mean, in my view, it’s because. They feel respected, they feel understood. And it’s not all just having to explain my reality, to someone else.

Carrie: And I think that we’ve come a long way from original psychology in its infancy was a bunch of white European men. And now we have a lot more diversity in the counseling community as a whole. We have a lot more people of color. A lot more people of different ethnic origins and backgrounds. And that helps a lot with people being able to find someone that they can relate to, that they feel like, this person’s really gonna get it. And they’re really gonna have that level of like cultural sensitivity to their work. 

Dr. Nicholas: Absolutely. And you know, I was just inviting womanist, pastor theologians and therapists to a class. So I’m teaching a woman is pastor theology and spiritual care class where I teach at Clare Osteology. And one of the things that was significant. So Dr. pH shepherd was the person who came to visit us and she teaches at Vanderbilt. And she was just naming that when she, teaches her students about, you know, women as pastor or theologies and womanist psychologies, she’s like the things that we’re contributing, like these are not necessarily brand new. In other words, she was naming that even before like certain books and certain academic fields. There were actually black women writing of.

Carrie: Wow.

Dr. Nicolas: About psychology, right? And about, you know, spirituality. So just because psychology came into existence as like this Western Eurocentric male-centric field, that was not the beginning of human psychology.

Carrie: Right. No makes sense. 

Dr. Nicholas: You know, it actually existed before then. And so, when we realized that the fact that, even if we take a very seriously a, you know, African traditions and indigenous African traditions, a lot of these traditions were oral traditions and things that were passed down. And so there’s a lot of diverse types of wisdom that we can pull from whether it’s from the oral traditions or even like the other written works that don’t get highlighted in traditional psychology.

Carrie: So you’re really feeling like there’s more of an openness in the black community towards mental health, more openness, maybe towards clergy to be talking about mental health and how can we apply these things to ourselves to be healthier clergy, but also how can we help the people in our congregations be healthier?

Dr. Nicholas: Absolutely. I think a lot of it’s trust. I mean, I’ve been clergy in the local church setting. I’ve worked with clergy in the local church setting. I know very well, the suspicion, and I would say a healthy suspicion, oftentimes that black folks have of, you know white, if they’re not centered in a deliberative practice. I mean, they can sniff it out just like that. And so when you have clergy, for instance, who are trained in, you know, like liberation theology, being a type of theology that takes very seriously that systemically marginalized and that systemically oppressed and tries to nurture their wellbeing. I mean, I, I can think about the work of Howard Thurman. Who asked the question? What does the religion of Jesus have to say to those who love where their backs against the wall? And so when you’re doing ministry and theology from this vantage point as a black clergy person, well you wanna make sure that a therapist you go to is also reflecting on, how can I conduct therapy in such a way that helps people who are living with their backs against the wall?

Carrie: What are some common struggles that you see black men facing today? 

Dr. Nicholas: The struggles that I see again, I guess I wanna repeat the thing that these are diverse struggles, right? 

Carrie: Sure. 

Dr. Nicholas: There’s a difference. In other words, there’s a lot of variation within black communities. You know, no one black man is alike. And so I, I think it’s important to honor that, but then also when I think about some of the common themes that I’ve seen with black men, even as I wrote my book on the mental and spiritual health of black men. A lot of these things, get back to what I name as like, the social pathology. In other words, what’s wrong with society? What’s the dysfunction in society? I mean, a lot of Western individual psychology looks at the pathology as individualistically based. They point, even when you look at the DSM. It’s always ask Okay. What, what disorder does this one person have? Part of what I wanna ask is what disorder does society have? That causes a black man to struggle mentally and emotionally as they might. 

So from that perspective, I think there’s a lot of ways in which black men experience people, looking at them as if they’re not educated as if they’re criminals, as if they’re dumb as if their ultimate destination is to be locked up or, you know, killed by police. Or if they’re going to be successful by being some type of entertainer, whether it’s, you know, an athlete, visual artist, musician, you know, rapper, things of that sort. So these are all things, themes that came out of the interviews of black men, that I put in my book of The Care for the Mental and Spiritual Health of black men. I, I think when we realize that these are common things, you realize these are significant odds. So, so this gets back to the whole concept in psychology of projection and projective identification. 

So one of the questions I asked black men in my book was what does society say about you and what does society think about black men? What is the ultimate life destination that society sees for black men? And that’s when they responded with all of those things that I named in terms of naming that, you know, black men, that society sees black men as criminals bugs as, you know, savages, as people to be feared, devalued, discredited folks who are not known by society, unless we actually take time to have conversations like this. Right? So, so it’s almost like as a black man, even though I’m a person like I’m a professor, I have a, you know, PhD minister, all these things. I often have to like, earn my way, even having these things. 

I have to earn my way to be received by someone as something who actually is this person, as opposed to whatever thing they have in their imagination of who I am. And so when you realize that there’s so much resistance, that that has to go on in a black man’s life, you know, in other words, I’m having to, and black men are having to resist these negative projections that society  has of us. Right? And so, when I look at the various psychological theories I studied, which is one of the reasons why I decided to write my own theory for the mental and spiritual the black men was because I noticed that when I was in graduate school, you know, studying psychology, a lot of these theories when they talked about these are the things you need to be. Well, psychologically, whether some of them talked about it from the perspective of everyone has like, you know, mirroring needs. Everyone has idealization needs. Everyone has these needs to be safe and all these things, I mean, these are all good and well, but they weren’t even talking about the specific things that black men face.

So this is why I think that when we realize all these things that black men face, we have to then take a step back and say, “okay, there are some additional things because of the realities of racism, sex, and classism in black men’s life”. One of the things that black men need to be able to do is to resist on a continual basis. All these negative projections. But then a part of that means that because we’re resisting so much in our lives, we also need to be able to experience mental and emotional healing on a consistent basis as well, because those negative projections keep coming our way. 

Carrie: And I think being able to talk with someone who can really validate that, their lived experience of, okay, I’m feeling like I’m having to work harder or climb this extra mountain, just to be able to do the things that other people may be able to do easily, reputation-wise and things that you were talking about. I think that that’s really important in terms of just the therapeutic context of validating that. That those things are real, that people may look at you and it doesn’t matter that you’re well educated and you’re dressed nicely. They may assume you’re a drug dealer who, you know, because of their own preconceived notions that they have. 

I found this interesting that it, it really just came out very recently prior to us recording this, that the American Psychological Association, it recently published a formal apology for their role in promoting perpetuating and failing to challenge racism, racial discrimination, and human hierarchy in the US. And I’m curious about your response to that article, 

Dr. Nicholas: I’ll say, “yes”. I’m curious, what else that we want to reflect on from it?

Carrie: Do you feel like that, that’s been a long, like overdue statement that they made basically. I mean, cause they listed several different things. Just, you know, not taking into account marginalized populations. When we look at studies, sometimes the studies are not diverse. And then we’re trying to apply something that was not studied on people of color to people of color. For example, just some of those types of things. From your perspective as a black man, does it feel validating like, well, it’s about time.

They got around to that. Just what does that feel like for you? 

Dr. Nicholas: That’s a very good point. The reason why I respond to that as I do is because there is a way that I would say people of color and certainly black people see it, you know, see this, apology and say, “okay”, well, you know, the response might be, I’m glad that that happened. And also we know that like our livelihood, our survival, our liberation, our flourishing is not, you know, predicated on whether or not we’re gonna get this apology, right? 

We know that it may or may not happen. History has proven itself a black folks will go to the grave without getting a certain apology or reparations or things of that sort. So we’re not basing our livelihood, our survival and flourishing on whether or not certain groups apologize and give reparations. Now, of course we’ll strive for these things to happen, but we’re not waiting for that to happen in order for us to nurture our own wellbeing, an approach that many of us have. And I can think about groups that I’m a part of. Well, we organize within ourselves to nurture our own well being because we’re like, we know they may or may not get. But we know we have the wisdom, the genius within us to nurture our wellbeing. One of my amazing colleagues, and I will say, you know, she’s someone who I admire deeply because she’s the first black woman to have a full book. And woman is pastor theology and spiritual care. So this is Dr. Carol Watkins Ali. She wrote the book Survival and Liberation, which focuses on pastor or theology and pastoral counseling in the African American context. 

One of the things that she said is if the trauma isn’t the DNA, then the healing is in the DNA. She talks a lot about, you know, black women, especially poor black women and saying that all of society will be better if we care deeply for poor black women, because a lot of our capitalism, the ways and we profit are built on the labor backs and suffering of poor black women. I, I think it’s very important to honor that. And so, when we take seriously the reality that folks who’ve experienced the trauma know very well of the experience of it and have the ability. If we nurture constructive self-reflection and ways to engage and respond to the suffering, then we ourselves can nurture our own wellbeing. And of course, there’s always room for allies in the struggle.

One of the things I’m clear about is that, you know, black folks not waiting on whoever to apologize to us, like we know we’ve got the power, we’ve got the ability, the wherewithal to nurture our own wellbeing. Even as we work with willing allies. 

Carrie: And I think, definitely actions speak louder than words. And so it may take time for some of these things that you’re talking about for change to occur. Obviously, if you’re talking about things that have been going on for a while. Takes time to make changes. 

Dr. Nicholas: Right. 

Carrie: Tell us a little bit more about your book, The Care for the Mental and Spiritual Health of black men.

Dr. Nicholas: So, as I alluded to earlier, you know, I just got tired during my PhD program, seeing all these psychological theories, not, you know, fully addressing. Emotional psychological and spiritual experiences of black people in particular. And when you look at, you mentioned the early beginnings of psychology, even when you look at the early beginnings of black psychology, certainly a lot of it was focusing on the strengths of black people and, you know, how do we engage a strengths-based model instead of a deficit-based model, which is significant shift from how a person engage, you know, traditional Western therapy. So that’s been a part of black psychology, but a lot of the beginning of black psychology was about responding to what centric psychological theories were saying. So a lot of these early psychological theories and literature about black people about how black folks are less than, and you know how we’re so different from white people.

So then you have a lot of black psychologists coming along saying, “wait a minute, we need to respond to that”. Because that’s not true. We’re not less than white people inherently. And so when I look at the work that I do, I’m dishonored by those who came before me, because I’m only able to do what I’m able to do because of those who’ve paved a path.

In other words, if I came into existence at a point in time in human history where nobody had defended against this oppressive thought from early psychology about black people. Then, a lot of the tasks of my work primarily respond to these negative perceptions of black people by white psychology. And so, because you have so many folks who’ve come before me, who’ve already done that work. I then can develop an approach to counseling and mental health that, you know, stands on their shoulders and enables me to think about how do we nurture not only the survival of black people, but the flourishing of black people. 

So, this is how I enter into the conversation in human history is to say that, you know, look at these amazing black psychologists, who’ve done this work up until now. And even in more recent years, you’ve had, you know, certain works that highlight, you know, black psychology. I’m thinking about various volumes, on the black psychology, which are available. All we gotta do is look ’em up and, and teach from them and study from them. And we’ll be better equipped to care for black people. And one of the things that I saw was even as I, I did the research, there was not much of anything highlighting the experiences of black men in their own words. And so I felt like it was important to actually, how about we actually talk to black men, see how they experience life, make a space for their stories to be told, and then, to do some reflection about how can we nurture, not only their survival, but also their flourishing.

So this is how and why I develop, what I name as a hope to keep going model. For care and counseling, which is in my book care for the mental and spiritual health of black men. One of the, the folks I build off of is Victor Anderson. Who’s also at Vanderbilt. And one of the things that he talks about is that for too long, black existence has been taught to suffering and resisting that suffering. So in his book beyond ontological, blackness, you know, he makes an argument that, black folks should not be tied solely to an existence of, you know, suffering and then having to resist that suffering. But he’s like everybody wants to flourish including black people. 

Carrie: Right. 

Dr. Nicolas: So what does it look like for us to not. Get rid of the need to resist all these oppressive things that cause us to suffer. We’re always gonna have to resist those things, but what does it look like to also think about how do we intentionally nurture the, the flourishing of people? So I pick up on that in my book and say, “Hey, this book is about certainly nurturing the survival, the healing and the liberation of black men”, and also the ultimate step of this work is to nurture the flourishing of black men. So that’s a significant aim of my book. 

Carrie: Awesome. It’s really great. So at the end of every podcast, I like to ask our guests to share a story of hope, which is a time in which you received hope from God or another person.

Dr. Nicholas: Wow! I was just thinking about this the other day with the person and saying that there was a moment when I was, it might have been 11 or 12 years old, and I started playing piano when I was five years old, started playing saxophone when I was nine years old. And I remember I was at a church, my home church there in Atlanta and the pastor at the time, you know, he references, you know, the words in the Hebrew Bible and you know, the Old Testament during his sermon, he asked a question, what has God placed in your hands? And that was a significant question for me to reflect on, right? Because I then began to recognize, oh my goodness, I’ve been blessed with all these different gifts and ways of being. And, and then part of that work of God and the act of God that I experienced throughout my childhood was a village of people. Whether it was from that church or, you know, from the various schools I attended, you know, and certainly middle and high school. People who saw these gifts, these things that God placed in my hand. And help to nurture those gifts.That that’s been a significant, you know, gift that I experienced and, and act God in my life that has nurtured my own survival and flourishing. 

Carrie: That’s awesome. That’s really, like amazing. We take that step back and realize, like what God has gifted us with. 

Dr. Nicholas: Absolutely. 

Carrie: Thank you for having this conversation. I’m always very interested and open to hearing people from other perspectives and other lived experiences that I haven’t experienced. So I, hopefully it will enrich other people, as they listen to conversation as well. 

Dr. Nicholas: Absolutely.

Carrie: Regardless of your cultural or racial background, I hope that you found this interview interesting, and that maybe you learned something from it that you didn’t know before. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about doing the podcast has been the variety of different people that I’ve gotten to interview and talk with people from really all over the world, Canada, London, Africa. 

We haven’t had anybody that I’ve interviewed from Australia. So if you’re in the mental health space in Australia, I know we have listeners out there, certainly hit me up on the website and let me know what you’re doing in your community and in your part of the world. For all of our listeners, if you enjoy the podcast and you really feel like you have benefited from these episodes, I want to encourage you to think and pray about giving back. This is a ministry that reaches people all over the globe. You can support our show financially either through Patreon or buy me a coffee. We will have both of those links in the show notes for you. Thank you so much for listening.

Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of, By the Well Counseling. Our show is hosted by me Carrie Bock, licensed professional counselor in Tennessee. Opinions given by our guest are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of myself or By The Well counseling. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum. Until next time may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.