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Black Men Heal: Introducing COO Zakia Williams

by Reagan Williams

(Source: Pexels / August de Richelieu)

Currently, Black men experience comparable rates of mental illness as other groups. Yet, Black men are not receiving the help or support to address these issues. There are notable contextual differences as it relates to i.e., (anxiety, depression, and socioeconomic status). Additionally, Black men prefer to seek a health care professional of the same race. However, Black men have difficulty finding services or a provider who can take into consideration their history of dealing with structural racism. This boils down to having access to high-quality psychological and psychiatric services. According to the American Psychological Association, only 26.4% of Black and Hispanic men ages 18 to 44 who experienced daily feelings of anxiety or depression were likely to have used mental health services. Ultimately, are there opportunities out there for Black men to receive mental health treatment, psychoeducation, and community resources? The answer is Black Men Heal.

Black Men Heal comprises of 55 therapists, in eight different states to provide mental health coverage for Black men with eight free therapy sessions. The organization was started by Tasnim Sulaiman, psychotherapist, founder, and executive director in 2018, for the Philadelphia area. The purpose was to create a safe space for Black men. This space was designed for Black men to receive therapy sessions from Black practitioners, who could identify with their cultural stressors i.e., racism, prejudice, and economic disparities. For clients interested in receiving these services, this can be done through the BMH Application Portal.

In March 2022, for National Women’s History Month, Milkscope interviewed Zakia Williams, co-founder, and COO of Black Men Heal. Williams is finishing her masters degree in counseling psychology, this spring from Eastern University. She is the President/CEL of Interface Psych Services, Inc., providing psychotherapy services outside of Philadelphia in Montgomery County. She shared with us her experiences, the role of Black Men Heal, and her perspective as a Black therapist servicing Black men.

Zakia Willliams (COO of Black Men Heal)

1. Could you tell me about yourself in terms of your professional background?

I have a master's degree in business, and I have my undergraduate (degree) in psychology with a minor in business from Temple University. Currently, I’m going for another masters degree in counseling psychology. Since 2014, I have had my own private practice psychology group, Interface Psych Services, Inc. It’s a private practice in Jenkintown, PA, where I have PhD and LCSW level master level clinicians that work under me. Then, through a lot of different channels, I ended up at Black Men Heal in 2018.

2. What led you to Black Men Heal and what was the appeal?

I will make a long story short. So, I have a son who is 22, but at the time he was 18 and I was married. I was married for a while, but going through a divorce. I guess I was trying to find out who I was in between being a wife and a mother, and just being you know who I am. I started to go to panel discussions and to see different things around the city. So, I went to a panel discussion on cannabis and mental health, just to learn new things. (I wasn't) sure if I wanted to be a therapist or if I wanted to take my practice further as far as the business aspect of it. But anyway, I went to this panel, it was phenomenal and one of the therapists was Kevana Nixon. She started talking about Black Men Heal, and I was just blown away. I was just like wow you know I couldn't believe that. Because there (are) a lot of things that (are) geared towards women, but I’ve never heard of anything that was geared towards men. At the time they had therapists that were on an all-volunteer basis.

So, they had therapists, but some of the therapists were new, like me in an internship, or they didn't have their own office space. They were looking for people to volunteer office space. After the panel discussion I went up to her, and I was like hey you know I have my own private practice. I would love to donate space and she was like okay, well I will connect you with the founder, Tasnim Sulaiman,. She came to sign the contract with me and she and I just got to talking; we just clicked instantly and it just went from there. Because I didn’t notice the disparity in the way that the world perceived black men. My son was getting older and I noticed he was falling into that.

You know, he had a car, and my son has been stopped so many times by the police. If you see him he looks innocent and little, but he's 6’6”. So, it just all started coming together to be honest. For me, being a part of Black Men Heal sounds funny but the divorce was such a blessing to me because it helped me (lead) me to Kevana Nixon, which led me to Black Men Heal, which changed the whole trajectory of my life.

3. Why did you decide to go back to school?

I started working and I was doing the assessment part of seeing the men and I would have to assign them to different therapists. Then, it was like you know I want to start seeing these men too, I want to be a part of their healing journey and seeing them- transform and all that stuff. So that's when I went back to school. Now, I have like a whole client list of all Black Men Heal clients, in addition to still doing all the COO responsibilities.

4. From what I was reading, Black Men Heals provides eight free sessions and then will refer people out. Can you explain what is the process for someone that wants to receive services and what’s that process like?

When I came on board, we tried to change the way that we were receiving the clients. Before, we just kind of advertised free therapy for Black men. We just got flooded and it was like the floodgates were open. It was just unbelievable; we still don't have enough clinicians to see our men. Our current waiting list is over 1000 men. We get 100 applications per week and some of them don't qualify. Part of our criteria is that you have to be over 18 and over. So some people (who) apply are under 18.

Another aspect is that you can't be court mandated. We kind of set this up to have a safe space for men that want to step into the space. Plus, we weren't paying anybody initially, it was all volunteer. We didn't want anybody to show up that was wasting our therapists time and not show.

So, they sign up and that's just the prerequisite phase. Once we get the prerequisites, I go through and make sure the criteria is up to date as an initial assessment. The application takes about 40 minutes, the guys complain all the time. However, it helps us get a lot of information about them, so we can know who (we're) going to pair them with. If they can’t finish a 40 minute application, then we don’t feel that they are going to finish eight sessions with a (therapist).

(Source: Pexels / Mikhail Nilov)

5. What is unique about the Black Men Heal therapeutic process for Black men?

The matching and the referrals from our clients is something that sets us apart. The matching is time consuming, but we try to pair (clients) with the perfect therapist for them. We want both sides to click with one another. Our matching is an art- from the data, we have a 97% effective rate in the client/therapist match-ups. Most of the men that we get are from our men that already went through the program. They tell their boys, “Hey (you know I went through this), check this out,” then they come. We ask in our session and we encourage them to share their experience with eight other men.

When we started the whole journey with Black Men Heal, it was to eliminate three areas. One is cost, because the services are free. Another one is to pair them with Black clinicians or clinicians of color that culturally compensate and then the other one is to remove the stigma. The key indicator of successful therapy is this good therapeutic alliance.

When we're (doing pair ups), we try to take into consideration variables of what their issues are with a clinician’s personality, and specialty. Our objective is not to service people and not refer them out if we offer them the sessions. It’s all virtual, which (makes) it easier. Also, a lot of men that come to us have health insurance, they just can't find a black clinician. So, I will try to pair them up with a clinician that takes that particular insurance, so they continue with them after the eight sessions. If they don't have any insurance, we will pair them up with somebody like me who's pre-license (that they can use). I have clients that I’ve been seeing for a year now, providing mental health for and I’m also getting my own clinical hours. We have some clinicians that offer a sliding scale. The beautiful part of (it is that at least 80% )of our men continue on after the eight sessions.

6. Since you have 100 people signing up a week, do you scale to grow in the future?

The scaling part is the hard part because we don't have any funding really. I mean when I say we are being built off the benevolence of corporations and people. For example, there’s a woman that sends us $15 a week. We don't know who she Cash Apps us for $15 a week. She’s been doing it for two years now, we don't know. Now we're going to have to (look into grants), we just started that in 2021. So the scaling part as far (as we know is needing money), I mean we can't hire more clinicians because we can't pay them without more funding.

However, one program that I’m really excited about is called King’s Corner. It came about when COVID hit, and we couldn’t do the group sessions anymore onsite. So, we started just doing a virtual group online. We hired two guys that run the group every week and they will have a host. They’ll have a host come on to talk about mental illnesses, wellness, or other topics. And the men love it so much (that they sign on every week). We have so many people, we have someone from the UK, someone from Africa, someone from Canada and (the age range is from 18 to 85). They get so vulnerable in that space, cry, and hold each other up and the men are (there for each other).

7. What does life look like next May after you’ve graduated?

I am done in May, and this journey began with me trying to get my doctorate. It worked out though for me to get my masters instead as Black Men Heal grew. I think about COVID, school, and how busy I was as we were scaling Black Men Heal. And I just love how far Black Men Heal has come.

For right now, I would like to see programs continue to grow. We have a program, called Heal With Him focused on women, whose partners, or husbands are going through therapy sessions. They saw the progress they were making and wanted to be supportive even if they weren’t in the same place as their partners. If anything, a year from now, I want that group to grow and be big, continuing to focus on Black Men Heal and growing my own practice, Interface Psych Services.

For more information about the organization, BLACK MEN HEAL, visit:


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