Mayor Michael Hancock wants to destigmatize mental health issues, especially among Black men

Chandra Thomas Whitfield

It’s estimated that forty percent of adults are dealing with anxiety and depression. That same figure holds true for teenagers, who say they tend to feel sad or hopeless. Black and Brown communities are disproportionately undertreated, even as their well-documented challenges with mental illness have continued to rise. These are among the reasons Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has hosted “Black Health and Healing,” a series of events this year focused on raising awareness about mental health, especially as it relates to communities of color, and most notably, among Black men.

“This issue is important for all of our society. I think we have an unmet need in terms of mental illness,” Hancock told Colorado Matters co-host Chandra Thomas Whitfield. “And one of the things about the African American community, not only are we untreated, we don’t talk about it as a community. We still see it as a stigma.”

As part of Black History Month in February and in March Mayor Hancock held events at Cableland, his private residence, to foster community discussion. He invited former all-pro Denver Bronco Ray Crockett and Shirley Smith, the former wife of former Denver Nuggets star J.R. Smith, to share their stories about overcoming mental health crises and stigma at these events held in collaboration with the mayor’s office and some of Colorado’s leading health organizations; including the Colorado Health Foundation, Connect for Health Colorado and the Center for African American Health, along with The Tattered Cover Bookstore..

In his interview with CPR News in July, Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, Mayor Hancock also shared some of the personal mental health challenges he has faced in recent years, including the anxiety he experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic while helming Colorado’s largest city. “It was weighing heavily on me, waking up every day and knowing that every decision I made was going to impact someone’s life, the call to shut down the city that I knew would cost the livelihoods of people, and quite frankly seeing people die from (COVID-19),” said Hancock.” He also reflected on the loss of close friends, his divorce, and the death of his dog as sources of some of the mental distress he’s experienced in his own life. “And only when I sat and just was honest with myself, this stuff hurts, this is painful and I need help.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Why was tackling mental health, especially mental health in the black community, particularly important to you?

Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver: This issue is important for all of our society. I think we have an unmet need in terms of mental illness. And I think that we have got to get on this issue. These issues of mass shootings and other situations that we’re seeing in our communities today, whether it’s mental health, people who are experiencing homelessness and as a result their mental health is untreated, or drug addiction that we’re seeing in terms of opiates and fentanyl, it is at a crisis point right now. And one of the things about the African American community, not only are we untreated, but we’re uncommunicated, we don’t talk about it as a community. We still see it as a stigma. You know, we put the crazy uncle in the room, we don’t talk about “Uncle Luther” back there. And we’ve got to, I think, normalize the challenge in our families and be willing to confront them and really encourage people in the African American community to seek treatment because unchecked treatment, which by the way, a lot of our trauma goes way back over two or three centuries right now to the days of slavery and we interestingly enough, carry a lot of that forward in a very innate genealogical way today; it’s in our DNA psychologically. It doesn’t mean we can’t overcome it because we’ve overcome a lot, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. And we’ve got to be honest about the fact that we are, we are facing these challenges.”

Thomas Whitfield: To put this more in a bit of context, can you share with us any data or statistics that you know about mental health in Denver, in Colorado?

Mayor Hancock: Here’s what we know, and I’ll speak about in general terms because I don’t want to misguide us on numbers specifically. The majority of us face mental health challenges. Some of them are more acute than others, but most people, interestingly enough, more than three out of four people you see, are dealing with some form of mental health challenge. And again, most of it goes untreated. And you know, the reality is that we may be talking with someone face to face today and tomorrow we hear that they committed suicide and there was nothing to indicate to us that (they) had any kind of challenge because quite frankly they didn’t talk about it and they didn’t show any signs. We have become good and masking our pain and masking the challenge that we are facing. And so the reality is that we have got to be a society that if we normalize mental illness and if we normalize in terms of, you know, when I say normalize, accept the fact that it exists amongst us and the fact that we are able to seek treatment and it’s okay to seek treatment and that’s what I mean by pulling back the stigma. I know many celebrities like Oprah Winfrey are saying, ‘Let’s remove the stigma, I’m in treatment, I’m in counseling and I’m okay with that’.  And we gotta make it okay for people to talk about it. And I think we’re starting to do that. And that’s why I did the events during Black History Month because we had two very, I think, prolific authors talk about their struggles and how they triumphed over them through treatment and counseling. They’re not out of the woods, but they’re willing to be honest about what they went through and that they’re still fighting.

Thomas Whitfield: We’re going to talk a little bit more about what was discussed at those Black Health and Healing events, but you have one year left in your term. Why launch this now?

Mayor Hancock: Mental health has been something I’ve been very concerned about for quite some time. And in fact, when I came in as mayor probably around 2012, 2013, I sat down with a mental health expert, interestingly enough, our former first lady, Jeannie Ritter. We were at lunch and I said to her, ‘Jeannie, I’m struggling, I see the challenge with homelessness and the drug epidemic.’ I said, ‘What am I missing? Is there a mental health component to this?’ And I’ll never forget. She dropped her fork with such ferocity that everyone in the restaurant looked at us and she said, ‘Finally, someone’s asking the right question.’ That if we start with a public health perspective on these issues, we can begin to, I think, approach them in the right way. We cannot approach homelessness or people experiencing homelessness with a pure homeless or housing perspective, because we’re going to miss the fact that the vast majority of the people who are homeless, experiencing homelessness on our streets, are dealing with some form of mental health or addiction challenge, a behavioral challenge, a public health problem. And if we start there, then we begin to peel back the onion and get to the root cause. So it’s not like I just started now; it’s just that I’m starting to be more aggressive about how we put together programs and use partners to help us address a lot more of these challenges we’re seeing.

Thomas Whitfield: You mentioned some of this in your recent address to the city. Home prices have skyrocketed during your time in office, the number of people experiencing homelessness has risen, there are encampments, violent crime, overdoses. How does any of this, in your view, play into the mental health issues?

Mayor Hancock: Because all of what you just pointed out speaks to injustices in our community. When we see homelessness, we are seeing a market failure. We are seeing inequities play out. When we see people who are experiencing hunger, when we see people unable to access health care, we’re seeing trauma play out. And if we don’t as a society believe that results in some form of behavioral health challenge, people resorting to drugs to mask their pain, people quite frankly just losing their wits about themselves, then we’re missing the whole point. I often tell people when we talk about the protest around George Floyd, absolutely people are tired of the injustices and the unnecessary unwarranted use of force by police officers that have cost thousands of lives around this country, but we’re also looking at centuries of trauma inflicted among African Americans and other people of color and quite frankly, other people who are working class and poor in our nation, that kind of manifests itself and it exposed itself. It came out during that time. We’ve got to look at it from a social economic realm. And so the point that I was making in my discussion about justice, let’s understand what injustices result in in our community when we don’t address issues of homelessness and we don’t address issues of lack of affordability around housing, lack of opportunity or access to capital to start our businesses. These are elements of trauma, small wounds being inflicted daily, hourly by the minute on a certain group of people that ultimately result in some tragedy occurring in our society. And we’ve got to recognize the connections.

Thomas Whitfield: You’ve mentioned these challenges, and also these trauma experiences, these trauma responses. What options or resources are available in Denver and Colorado to support those struggling with mental health, even some of the ones you described with homelessness and drug addiction and that type?

Mayor Hancock: Obviously [there are] not enough services. Let’s be very clear. The nation and the states have really failed to provide enough, and enough beds for people experiencing mental health challenges. We don’t have enough treatment beds for those who are dealing with addiction and those are real illnesses, right? If you’ve had anyone who’s been addicted to anything in your family, whether alcoholism or drugs, and African Americans, we saw proliferation of, the pervasiveness of, crack cocaine in our communities into the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, that’s a real illness and we don’t have enough treatment beds even still today. We’re working on it, but we don’t. You’re going to see us invest more in medicated treatment services around the city of Denver, partnering with nonprofits to provide more treatment services and hopefully more beds. In our jails when people are arrested and you come in with addiction, and maybe it was the reason why you got arrested because you did something to support your habit or did something while high, we’re going to give you medicated, treatment services or at least access to them. There’s going to be a completely different pot that our sheriffs and behavioral health specialists are managing. Secondly, on the streets, instead of having officers respond to someone who’s having a crisis, Denver’s a national leading model under our STAR program. We are sending public health officials instead of police because they need help, not handcuffs. We’ve got to connect them with services. And so unfortunately we saw this with Paul Childs in 2003, a young man who was killed by an officer [while Childs] was having a mental health episode. He had a knife in his hand and the officer couldn’t recognize what was going on with Paul. This teenager lost his life because we didn’t have the proper resources to deploy to help the situation at that time. So the reality is that we know more now and we’ve got to get better and that means we’ve got to have non-lethal responses to these challenges and crises that we see on the street when it warrants.

Thomas Whitfield: “Black Health and Healing,” from what I gather, has mainly been a series of events that you’ve held this year, exploring various aspects of mental health. Tell us about these events and what happened so far.

Mayor Hancock: Sure. We chose Black History Month because it was a chance to really kind of galvanize and to grab the attention of the African American community on this particular issue. And so I brought in two authors, two that I’d met previously. One is actually a friend I’ve known for a while and I read his book and I said, ‘Ray, you’ve got to talk about this book.”

Thomas Whitfield: Of course Ray Crockett, former Broncos player.

Mayor Hancock: Yes, former all-pro cornerback of the Denver Broncos, played on the first two Super Bowl teams for the Denver Broncos. Great guy. Good friend. And he wrote the book, “Bump and Run,” and it talks about his retirement where he fell from glory to really pain and where he almost ended his life. And it took his good friend, Rod Smith, former all-pro wide receiver of the Denver Broncos, to fly from Denver to Dallas and to basically break-in Ray’s house and say, ‘Brother, I’m taking you out of here. You’re going to be okay.’ Because Ray had secluded himself, he had locked himself off from the public, and he was very candid. He said, ‘I was about to end my life.’ You know the applause had ended. He had ruined himself financially from the partying, the women, he lost his family, his wife, the drugs, the alcoholism, just so much hit him all at one time. He was trying to get back the glory and the adrenaline we get from the field and the collapse of the audience that he lost all his money, he was investing wrongly and he’s a smart dude. He’s gotten all that money back or at least a lot of it; he’s a very successful businessman today, but it took Rod Smith and really seeking treatment to get help. The other book was written by Shirley Smith, and Shirley is a phenomenal lady, but she gives a story about her upbringing, the difficulty of dealing with a mother addicted to crack cocaine. But the story really centers around the birth of her child who almost died, her fight to save her child, and she unveils the disparities in health care. Now, the difference was, Shirley was the wife at the time of a former great Denver Nugget, former great Los Angeles Laker, former great Cleveland Cavalier, J.R. Smith and they had the resources. But she said, ‘Had I not had the resources, just imagine,’ she said, ‘I would’ve lost my child.’ Because those doctors weren’t willing to do everything they could until they realized who they were and they had the ability to take care of their child. But she also talks and chronicles her mental health struggles

Thomas Whitfield: And Smith, as you mentioned, J.R. Smith, played for the Nuggets from 2006 to 2011. And I had the opportunity to attend the Ray Crockett event. And I’m a relatively new Coloradan; ten years in…

Mayor Hancock: From where?

Thomas Whitfield: Atlanta via New Orleans. So, I’m a Saints fan, sorry. But I was really captivated by Ray’s story. I hadn’t heard of “bump and run,” so that was exciting to learn about his signature move [on the football field], but it was really interesting to hear, you know, with athletes, you hear such a macho mentality, like you have to kind of represent this sort of hard exterior and for him to be so vulnerable.I’m going to ask you what attracted you to his story.But I want to note that Ray is currently out of the country, but he has agreed to share his story on Colorado Matters. So, you will want to hear that interview and we will try our best to recreate that amazing story that Ray shared with us. But what was it about his story that really stood out for you?

Mayor Hancock: Well, first of all, it’s a powerful story. And knowing Ray, to your point, you would never have guessed that this would be someone who would go through the challenges that he would go through. And the point is, you get to these places in life and you’re afraid to trust anyone, to say I’m having a problem. And even if you’re not in a station of life where you’re worried about being exposed, we just, as Black men are not taught to be vulnerable, we’re taught to be tough. We’re taught to be strong. We’re taught to now let you know, let ’em see you sweat kind of movement because we were degraded. We were so dehumanized back in the day of slavery and Jim Crow that now we don’t do that. We don’t let you know you got me and, or anything’s got me for that matter. And you know, what to our detriment, because thankfully Ray had a friend in Rod Smith who said,’There’s something different about you, I’m coming to get you. I got you.’

Thomas Whitfield: You talked about Black men in particular and the Black community, but what about you? Is this personal for you? Have you ever personally struggled and needed support or felt the need for just some type of support?

Mayor Hancock: Absolutely. You know, listen, I went through a lot. First of all, I have a sister who was addicted to crack cocaine, she’s in her mid fifties now so probably for three quarters of her life, if not more. And so I watched and saw and kind of understood and learned a lot from her addiction and how she had to fight to come back. But I’ll tell you, during the pandemic, you know, you have the perfunctory, ‘How are you doing?’ Everybody’s asking, ‘How are you doing?’ And you got the perfunctory response, ‘I’m doing okay, we’re getting through this.’ You know what, but at the end of the day, I had to be honest with myself;  this stuff sucks. This is hard stuff. And it was weighing on me. It was weighing heavily on me, waking up every day and knowing that every decision I made was going to impact someone’s life, the call to shut down the city that I knew would cost livelihoods of people and quite frankly, seeing people die from this. And you know, I stopped count at 17 people that I knew personally, who lost their lives during or as a result of COVID. So this was a tough mental health challenge. And of course, shortly thereafter, I went through a divorce and I lost one of my best friends to the disease. And I also lost my favorite friend in the world, my dog, I mean, just all at one time. And one of my longest-serving appointees, I lost her during the pandemic and she lost her daughter to suicide. These folks were like family to me. So, you know, you can only take so many darts during that time. And without it, beginning to say, you know what, this stuff hurts. And only when I sat and just was honest with myself, this stuff hurts, this is painful and I need help. Did I seek help? And then I began to cope with it and, and be honest about it and get through it.

Thomas Whitfield: So who’s been the audience at these events? I did attend the Ray Crockett event and I happened to notice walking around some young African American men. Can you tell us a little bit about who attended some of these events?

Mayor Hancock: “That was very intentional. We wanted our young men to understand that it’s okay to say, ‘I need help,’ to raise your hand and say, ‘I’m not doing okay.’ And so we were intentional about making sure they were in the room. We were intentional about making young women in the room for Shirley’s story, mothers were in the room for Shirley’s story, women who had experienced maybe a tough birth or postpartum depression, they were in the room for Shirley’s story, as well as women who had been through situations where their husbands were unfaithful to them, or they lost a partner, a tough divorce. Because she had been through all that. And she’s got a chance to talk about all that and how she triumphed through all that. We were very intentional about who was in the audience so that people could understand that people go through things and it’s better to ask for help.

Thomas Whitfield: Are there any plans to expand this “Black Health and Healing” to maybe more of a public or widespread event?

Mayor Hancock: Well, I think what’s important is that we continue to put together the partnerships and fund resources in the community with the African American Health Initiative and others that we partnered with to do this initiative, that we continue to do those things to make sure services are getting out the door. I also mentioned during the State of the City address that Colorado was one of the leading states and Denver was one of the leading cities in the opiate settlement that went nationwide. There is no doubt that this recurrent drug epidemic started with the Sackler family and their greediness. We sued and we are part of the class action lawsuit. We’ll receive our first trench of about $8 million in the next few months and we’re going to direct those resources back into the treatment services to expand them and to make sure that we are helping those who are addicted as a result of the actions of this one family and a board of directors that felt it was more important to get this drug out and spread across rather than care about the health and well being of Americans.

Thomas Whitfifeld: Well, thank you so much, mayor.

Mayor Hancock: Thanks for having me.

Editor’s Note:  If you or someone you know is struggling, there’s free and professional help through Colorado Crisis Services: Text “TALK” to 38255. Or use the new national number: 988. National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is observed each July to bring awareness to the unique struggles that members of racial and ethnic minority communities face regarding mental illness in the United States.

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