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Black Boy Joy: How A Mom And Son Turned Trauma Into Advocacy

Entrepreneur Kelli Joy Richardson is giving parents and their children space to heal, connect, and grow.

Human Interest

We've all seen the hashtags. The #BlackBoyJoy movement has been an inspiring, empowering, and refreshing one to watch. On social, we see the lighter side of our kings as fathers, bosses, lovers, mentors, and friends, and with that has come a wave of brothers exploring all the dimensions of themselves that venture far beyond the typical black male stereotypes. Part of that conversation and celebration of black manhood involves facing the issue of mental health, with men showing it's OK to be emotional and cope with addictions and illnesses.

Kelli Richardson Lawson, founder of The Sonrise Project, has watched this manifest in her own family. Her platform provides a safe space and community for parents or guardians to explore mental health issues with their loved ones. As a wife and mother of two sons, she faced challenges with her eldest, Kyle, a 17-year-old who began to show behavioral changes related to depression and drug use in his early teens. Right before his entry into high school, Kelli said, Kyle lost interest in swimming, a sport that he loved and was excellent at---so excellent that he was invited to train for the Olympics and set to earn college scholarships.

"He came home and said he didn't want to swim anymore," Kelli explained. "We started to see him change. We thought it was typical teenager stuff. He [was just] going into high school, so [we thought] this is what they do. They become moody, they start just hiding out in their rooms all the time---all of that. What we didn't realize was that he was starting to experiment with drugs, specifically marijuana. He was 15."

Courtesy of Kelli Richardson Lawson

With time, Kyle's behavior became "progressively worse," and he'd lock his bedroom door, become defiant, and experiment with marijuana. "Previously, he was a straight-A student, a happy kid---an easygoing, happy young man. Things suddenly changed---his grades, his interest in school. Even his friends started to change," Kelli recalled. She and her husband, Keith, decided that they needed to seek help to figure out what was going on, so they consulted a mental health professional. The two had already been familiar with therapy, having participated as a family with Kyle and his younger brother, Kristopher. Through testing, Kelli said, it was discovered that Kyle was indeed dealing with depression and faced challenges of ADHD in addition to the consistent marijuana use.

The Lawsons are among thousands of families of color impacted by mental health issues. African Americans are reported to be 20% more likely than other groups to face "serious mental health problems," suicide rates have been on the rise---particularly for black boys and teens---and black men experience damaging professional and personal effects of major depressive disorder (MDD) at a higher percentance than white males.

Kelli and her husband continued to seek professional help via psychologists and psychiatrists, and they eventually enrolled Kyle in special boarding programs where he could get consistent access to therapy and life skills lessons. "Many of my friends say, 'Kelli It's just weed. it's just weed.' Yes, one could say that, but there's also the mental [health] component that is really challenging, so we're working through both of those things."

Image Courtesy of Kelli Richardson Lawson

Though Kyle has seen his ups and downs in behavior, grades, and marijuana use, Kelli said, today, he is progressing step by step, looking forward to his senior year of high school and applying to colleges. "He loves music and he is creating all kinds of songs all the time," she said. "He wants to be a musician and he's talented. He's doing online classes and a handful of courses from his school, and we're taking it day by day, trying to help him stay clean and stay well."

Kelli wanted to help other parents and that's where the idea of The Sonrise Project came from. "The project is really meant to be a space for parents [with children who have] mental illness and addiction issues," she said. "What I found going through all of this over the past couple of years is that there are really no places to talk, share, learn and cry and to have a sense of community. It's a huge issue."

"Our community still has a stigma associated with mental illness, and no one wants to talk about it. I learned, through many of [the mental health] programs, the power of talking with other parents who are going through the same things, and so that's what this is supposed to be."

Through her platform, families can participate in free weekly chats where they can share their stories and ask questions. "We have calls [in the morning], and they're confidential," Kelli explained. "I'm not an expert in this. I can only share my journey, but there's an expert---a psychiatrist, psychologist, or an education specialist---on every call."

The platform also provides information on mental health resources, and it has even evolved to expand its reach. "Because I wanted to make sure my family gave permission to do all of this and that Kyle was OK sharing his story, we talked about it. [Kyle] wanted to change some of the language, and I did. And he also said, 'Mommy this is not just black boys. It's all boys.' I said, 'Good point.' I've even had multiple women reach out saying, "I'm having issues with my daughter.' The bottom line is it's a place for people to come together to have an outlet to share, to listen, to learn, and to go through this together."

For more information about The Sonrise Project, you can visit their website here.

Featured image courtesy of Kelli Richardson Lawson

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