With tears in his eyes, former Ohio State gymnast and fifth-year journalism major Paris McGee took off his glasses, lost in the painful memory of the isolation he felt in the days where he was the only black person on the Ohio State gymnastics team.
“I didn’t have the greatest experience here,” he said in a quiet voice. “I hate to say it. But I think that being the only black person on the team was hard, because I felt like I didn’t have the support.”
Such was the tone of the panel discussion featured at the event “Like Black Lives, Mental Health Matters Too,” Monday night at the Ohio Union, where McGee was featured as one of six panelists. The event served to create dialogue surrounding mental health within the black male community.
The discussion covered a wide array of issues, but one of the biggest ones for McGee was black male vulnerability. McGee said that for men, being vulnerable is often a sign of weakness. That men struggle to be in tune with their emotions, as well as the emotions of others.
“There just needs to be an encouragement more and a shift in our conversation, within our community that would open the door for us black men, to not only feel comfortable and seeking those emotions and having intimate conversations, but feeling proud,” McGee said earlier in the evening.
Panelists addressed the stigma often associated with black men seeking professional help for their mental health.
“It was something within my household, within my group of friends, it was taboo to talk about therapy,” said Taveon Brown, a recent Ohio State alumnus who also served on the panel. “’Why would you ever go to therapy? Are you psychotic? Do you need drugs?’ Those were the types of things I would hear when talking about therapy.”
Brown said eventually he got to a breaking point where he felt he had to see a therapist in order to save his own life. The results were life-changing.
“What I found out is when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know who you are and they don’t know any of your flaws, they don’t know what you are doing — what you tell them can bring out a lot about you,” Brown said. “It was relieving, it was the most helpful thing I’ve experienced and delved in in my entire life.”
The program was hosted by Redefining Athletic Standards, a student organization dedicated to reshaping the narrative around student athletes, specifically among black males.
RAS got its start earlier this spring by Ohio State wide receiver and third-year student Austin Mack, along with a few other athletes during an informal game of kickball at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
After the game was over, Mack knew he wanted to continue this newfound community beyond the walls of the Woody.
“I’ve seen these guys around in other sports,” he said. “But I needed to know my brothers.”
The event also served as part of the fourth annual Movember Mental Health Awareness Campaign at Ohio State. Its primary objective is to shed light around the topic of men’s physical and mental health.
“We wanted to have a social, educational piece each semester, and the first thing that came to mind when we were planning it in the summer was mental health,” Mack said. “Being a black man, being an athlete, and being a student, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of resources that aren’t around that we don’t know of.”
After suffering a career-ending injury last season, McGee is no longer a student athlete. As a student manager with the team, however, he’s embarked on a journey of healing.
He said while he works with the team now instead of competing, he has maintained a strong relationship with them because of the therapy sessions he had. McGee added that he was able to “release a lot of things that I had inside.”
Despite his challenging times on the gymnastics team, McGee is grateful for his experience. He said through it, he’s learned the value of community and love.
“It is a heaven-sent feeling when you can sit down with a person or a group of people who didn’t necessarily give you the love, the respect or the care you felt you deserved,” he said. “But when God has given you that type of peace, that’s just what it is.”
“There were definitely some days where waking up and getting out of bed seemed impossible. But I thank God because He’s been able to carry me on. I just pray that God will not allow my experience to be in vain.”