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Youth Advocate Helps Young Men of Color Address Mental Health Challenges

Justin Martinez is a youth advocate and Brother Be Well contributor who is passionate about supporting young people in reclaiming their power and eliminating barriers to mental health and success. A 32-year-old San Franciscan, he is the oldest of four siblings. He remembers a rough time growing up. At age 15, he went into foster care to escape what was, to him, an unsafe home. Determined to overcome his trauma, Martinez studied hard, was the first in his family to graduate from high school and college. He began mental health therapy during his mid-teens. 

As a man of color, Martinez not only had to push past the psychological harm of his trauma, but also had to overcome the stigma of seeking mental health treatment. Today, he uses his lived experiences to help young men of color who are struggling with mental health challenges. Martinez is a regular contributor to Mental Health California’s Brother Be Well, an innovative Sacramento-based media project, which is supported by Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky initiative. 

BBW screengrab

BlueSky aims to provide culturally responsive mental health resources to help Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth, and advance health equity. With a focus on improving the mental health of boys and men of color, Brother Be Well has created an online, multi-media community where youth, young men, and mental health professionals can have a safe, healing space with open discussions. They normalize conversations about mental health, blending education with pathways to treatment to reduce health disparities, disrupt prolonged suffering, and improve health and mental wellness.

“Talk therapy is how I’ve been able to confront some of the trauma and the psychological wounds I’ve had,” said Martinez. “That was the first step. Now, I’m sharing my experience with the world. It’s okay to be vulnerable. Your vulnerability is your superpower.” 

Addressing Mental Health Disparities

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), between 1991 and 2017 suicide attempts among black adolescents increased by 73%, while attempts among white youth decreased. They site that while anxiety and depression are risk factors for suicidal ideation, Black youth face additional challenges associated with systemic racism.  And with fewer culturally-competent providers, boys and men of color experience disproportionate levels of misdiagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, over-medication, and high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. 

“If we want to address mental health challenges among young men of color, we must acknowledge and understand the multiple ways in which repetitive and multigenerational exposure to systemic, oppression, discrimination, criminalization, and poverty can impact individuals and entire communities,” said Blue Shield of California Vice President of Corporate Citizenship Antoinette Mayer, who oversees the BlueSky initiative.

“To overcome the mental health stigma for young men of color, we need to look beyond providers in the traditional healthcare system to providers and community leaders who have lived experience,” said Mayer. “That’s why we’re investing in Brother Be Well. Their mental health clinicians, content creators, and youth advocates understand the range of challenges that young men of color face.”

A Caring Brotherhood

All Brother Be Well contributors are youth and men of color. This peer-support model, not only opens doors to BIPOC audiences, but also empowers creators to tell their own stories, which in itself can be therapeutic. 

Anyone can subscribe from the BBW website to receive access to free content (e.g., blogs, podcasts, and other media). Topics include trauma, healing and information for caregivers. Select content is available to the public here.

Brother Be Well also has a fee-based membership community. These memberships are designed to accommodate individuals, schools, universities, public agencies, healthcare organizations, human resources departments, businesses, and community groups interested in wellness for boys and men of color.  This service also offers opportunities to receive direct referrals to therapy.  

According to Martinez, contributors and audiences are inspired to become wiser in their approach to life. He said, “It feels like we all took that decision and that choice to take control of our lives and to do something other than what is expected of us."

Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky Initiative enhances access, awareness, and advocacy of youth mental health supports in collaboration with the California Department of Education and leading nonprofit organizations.