Life Lessons: Therapist Rwenshaun Miller
He uses the memory of his own struggles to shape needed services for Black men and boys
Rwenshaun Miller is a licensed psychotherapist and a speaker who works primarily with Black men and boys—a demographic that historically has not received adequate mental health care. Only one in three Black adults who need mental health care get it, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness, despite their growing rates of emotional distress. Miller’s own experience led him into his career as a therapist.
Miller, 34, grew up a star athlete and student in Bertie County. But he suffered from culture shock during his freshman year at UNC Chapel Hill, where he played defensive back on the football team and ran track. For the first time in his life, Miller struggled with his grades. Then, in his sophomore year, a knee injury sidelined him from sports.
His sense of self disintegrated. He stopped eating, showering, and sleeping. He heard voices that told him he was a failure. Miller’s family checked him into a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder with psychotic features. He continued to struggle, and he attempted suicide three times. In his final attempt, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger—and the gun jammed. He realized it was time to learn to live with his diagnosis.
Today, Miller operates his own practice, The Good Stress Company, in the University area. He also founded Eustress Inc., a nonprofit that starts conversations about mental health in the Black community. Last year, the organization provided more than 1,400 hours of therapy for those who couldn’t afford it, and Miller estimates that free sessions, many in clients’ homes, account for nearly half of his caseload. This year, to honor Miller’s work, Mayor Vi Lyles declared May 15 “Let’s Talk About It Mental Health Awareness Day.”
Here is Rwenshaun Miller in his own words. Responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
There aren’t a lot of therapists that look like me, and that hinders people from reaching out. I get a lot of calls like, “I want a Black male therapist.” And my caseload is just full, man. I don’t have the capacity to do it, even though I want to. There are a lot of Black males that are suffering in silence, and having that representation goes a long way.
As a man, you’re taught to suppress your emotions. We teach our kids early in life “boys don’t cry.” Many of us aren’t given the tools to understand our emotions.
Children today communicate completely differently than we used to. Back in the day, if you got bullied, it stayed within your school or your neighborhood. Now, you’ve got people recording things and posting on social media, and the entire world has a comment about it. It’s a different era.
People don’t understand that you’ve got to find different ways to connect with your kid. As a therapist, I’ll play video games with my kids. I do things that make them feel comfortable and that they enjoy, and then they start to open up. It’s about being quick to listen and slow to judge.
For a lot of people, there’s a financial barrier that comes with therapy. When it comes down to eating or paying your light bill or rent, those are the things you’re going to pay first before you seek therapy.
Then there’s the stigma of therapy. A lot of times we use diagnoses as blanket statements or we misuse them, like, “The weather is so bipolar.” It makes people scared to get help. People think that if they get a diagnosis, it’s going to go everywhere they go. A mental health challenge isn’t a death sentence.
After this past year, a lot more people are seeking therapy. It’s been hard times, especially for people of color. You’re seeing these people that look like you being murdered on screen. It can make you feel like, “I really don’t belong here.” It’s tough to live in a society where you’re always on edge and always have to be on the lookout. That definitely impacts your mental health.
Since moving to Charlotte in 2007, I’ve watched the city grow. I’ve watched neighborhoods disappear. You see these luxury condos, but now some people can’t live next to bus lines or the library. That’s a huge stressor that impacts mental health.
You see the disparities in the city. You can go to one part of Charlotte and see all these different resources, and then you go into another part where a lot of my clients live, and they have next to nothing. I have clients that have lived in Charlotte all their lives and have never gone to a Hornets game. They’ve never gone uptown. With certain clients, if I didn’t have the ability to go see them in their homes, they wouldn’t be able to make it to therapy because they don’t have a car.
Proper mental health care has allowed me to serve others in various capacities, but it’s also allowed me to make myself a priority. I think that’s what we forget, to serve ourselves. I learned that bipolar disorder is something that I’ll never get rid of. It’s a part of me, but it’s not all of me.
I’ve also learned I have to be conscious of my own boundaries. I have to be stringent with my routines. I tell my clients that no matter what mental health challenges they might be dealing with, you’ve got to learn yourself. When you learn yourself, you’re able to make better decisions about the things you need to have in your life.
One thing I wish people knew is that therapists don’t fix you. We help you understand how to live a better life and the changes you need to make for yourself. Therapy isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s going to bring up stuff that you either tried to forget or that you’ve been trying to hide from. But you’re gonna get out of therapy what you put into it. If you’re lying to your therapist, what’s the point?
Understand that every therapist isn’t made the same, just like every person isn’t made the same. If one therapist doesn’t work for you, it’s OK to find another. Don’t let that deter you. Try to understand what your challenges are and what specialties you may need from a particular therapist.
Everybody can benefit from therapy. You may not be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, but you still want to have that sounding board for things that are going on at home or at work. A lot of times, we try to depend on our friends, but our friends are biased. You need someone who’s trained to help you reach your goals.
Journaling, meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques can also assist you on your mental wellness journey. Physical activity plays a huge role in how you feel, as do the things you eat and the things you put into your body.
If you want to help out, tap into grassroots organizations, like Eustress, and see what their needs are. A lot of times, we don’t get the necessary resources. We don’t get the federal grants. It’s about just plugging in and connecting the dots and making the introductions. It can be as simple as that. You also want to think about, What are my real intentions? Some people do it just so they can make themselves feel good. But the community’s gonna sniff that out, and then they’re not gonna rock with you.
I’ve had a lot of older Black men be like, “Yo, you inspired me to seek out a therapist,” so that’s dope to see. That generation, they see it so differently. People I’ve never even met will DM me and be like, “I heard your story, and it inspired me to push on.” Kids will be like, “Thank you, Mr. Rwenshaun, for giving me a space.”