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Supporting kids’ mental health: Tim Massaquoi on shame, stigma, and asking for help

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It’s becoming more common for kids and their parents to open up and share their struggles with mental health. But this openness isn’t always welcomed in communities of color.

In this episode of The Opportunity Gap, we talk about the importance of mental health. We explore its stigma in communities of color and share tips for how to respond to life’s twists and turns. Listen as Tim Massaquoi, a licensed professional counselor and retired NFL player, explains: 

  • Why it’s OK for kids of color and their parents to ask for help

  • How he uses sports to help kids think about their own mental health

  • Ways positive self-talk can boost kids’ self-esteem 

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. But there's a lot the families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host.

Welcome back, listeners. In today's episode, we'll have part two of our discussion on the importance of mental health from the point of view of Black fathers in America. We'll tackle the stigma and we'll explore accessible ways to promote good mental health, not just to ourselves, but to our kids as well.

To help me get into this, I want to introduce today's guest, Tim Massaquoi. Tim Massaquoi is a licensed professional counselor and the clinical director of Counseling Services at the Ladipo Group. The Ladipo Group is a Black-owned company dedicated to the emotional wellness of Black and African American people and communities. Tim is also a retired NFL player and co-hosts the podcast on mental health called "Mind Ya Mentals," with Mal Davis of the Center for Black Educator Development. Tim, welcome to the show.

Tim: Thank you, Julian. Appreciate it. So excited to be here and continue to have this important conversation on this really important topic. So, excited to be here, excited to jump right into it.

Julian: I appreciate it. I appreciate it. So, usually our first question for anybody that comes on is just around the idea of joy. So, tell the listeners what's bringing you joy right now. What's giving you life right now?

Tim: I think personally, I would say I'm in a real reflective and learning part of my life. So, I'm in a PhD program called Organization Development and Change, and I'm just learning, just absorbing a lot of information and just very reflective of where I am and where I want to go, not just professionally, but personally. I'm just really in a very kind of like peaceful and very satisfied space. And it's just bringing me joy that each day I'm working hard. Working hard, right?

But it is the kind of work that, you know, you're investing in yourself, you're investing in potential that you have. And it's just really cool to be in this space. So, I'm just excited about that. Excited about my family, my wife. My son decided that he wants to be this football player. It just, I didn't do it. It just came on. So, I didn't push it. I was like, "Go play basketball, like go do this." "No, I want to play football." "OK. All right." So, it's natural. So, it's just fun connecting with him, training him. It's just a really cool time right now.

Julian: That's what's up. All right. All right, so let's get into it. So, you know, life comes with its share of ups and downs. And while we always can't control exactly what happens, we can control how we respond. Tim, you had a remarkable career in the NFL. You played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Miami Dolphins, and the Buffalo Bills. You endured an injury, right? You had an injury that changed life as you knew it.

I'm not an NFL player, I never did play professionally, but I can imagine that this made a lot of mental obstacles, like self-doubt and anxiety come into play. I want to ask like, when did you know it was time to get serious about your own mental health and ask for some help?

Tim: I'll give you like a short story version of it. When I got to college, I wasn't expecting to go to the NFL and I was given a mission by my mom and my aunt, and that was to earn my degree. You know, I got a scholarship to go to University of Michigan, and the job was to finish and earn your degree and keep pushing.

That was in my mindset when I got there and I got around my teammates and I saw like throughout the years, all these other guys getting this great opportunity to go play in the National Football League. This could be a thing. So, I was like, "OK." So, then I shifted my mindset to like, "OK, let's put our all into this." So, I went through all kinds of setbacks with injuries getting there. I was able to finally get drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so I was in Miami for a year, and I went to Buffalo and then my second year at Buffalo, I had this horrific knee injury training and that knee injury, coupled with a couple of other injuries, trying to get rehab and getting back and torn my Achilles.

So, then like, you know, I went from having this not really being engaged in this thing to really wanting it, to really seeing myself wanting a whole career and then boom, it being taken away from me. Because I mean, while that was happening, I had, you know, I got recognition and I built an identity in being a pro football player. And so, it was very hard to accept the idea that I couldn't play no more, that I wouldn't play no more.

And I struggled with that a lot. I struggled with understanding what I was going to do next, I struggled with who I was, how people are going to see me, I struggled with failure, right? I struggled with "I didn't reach my potential."

And so, all those things really started to impact me emotionally, and I sunk into a deep depression. I moved to Philadelphia and I started seeing the therapist, because I knew there was something going on, where I wasn't happy. I wasn't feeling good about myself. I just wasn't who I have always been, and it really impacted and changed my life. And it got me thinking about how many other players who were going through what I went through, as far as transitioning. And I said, "This is my calling. This is what I'm supposed to do."

Julian: Is there a history of seeking out therapy in your family?

Tim: Absolutely not. No. So, my family's from Liberia, West African family. I'm actually the first person born in the States for my family. Everybody else was born in Liberia and migrated due to civil war. So, all my siblings, my mom, and everybody came over due to that. But seeking out therapy or just talking about our problems from that perspective, from a non-judgmental perspective, just wasn't a thing. But I knew it was something inside of me that just wasn't right.

Julian: You know, you get to the highest level of your profession where you become an NFL player, and because of injury, it's taken away. Now you're the clinical director at a Black-owned practice. Tell us about the most fulfilling part of this whole transition that you've made from NFL player to now clinical director.

Tim: So, I jumped into the career solely thinking I was only going to be working with pro athletes, right? I had this mindset for what I was going to be doing and so, I was excited about that, and I took a job at a youth shelter — I was the director there — and that job was one of the hardest jobs I ever had to do. Hardest job, dealing with just trauma, right?

I was in the midst of trauma on a daily basis, and I had to really put the skills that I had together in smaller increments and quick dosages, right? Because we were dealing with teenagers, and it was stuff coming all the time. And I was just building this skill set that I didn't really think I was going to be doing when I went to the field.

So, the most fulfilling thing for me has been just understanding that the work that I did and the work that I do is impacting and helping the community. It brings me joy to know I'm impacting and helping the Black community on this level.

Julian: So, I'm interested to know, and you as a Black male therapist, how does your identity impact the work that you do, not only with those that share the same demographic as you, but possibly others too?

Tim: The interesting thing, one of the foundations of what you learn when you go to the field or when you're being educated, a lot of times is you're taught to take as much as you out of the experience as possible as a clinician, right? Because you don't want the work you're doing to be coming from a personal and a solely subjective perspective, right? You're taught to be as objective as possible.

But the thing that's been really cool for me is understanding the impact of cultural competence. I can't take my identity away, right? When I show up, no matter who I'm working with, and this is interesting because I've worked with 78-year-old communists on my caseload to an 8-year-old to 3 or 4, 8 and 10-year-old Black boys, right? And so, when I show up, they see me, right? So, I can't take my identity out of it. I have to be who I am. My background is there. Folks know I played in the NFL, so it comes up, "What was it like?" And I'm not going to dismiss the question, "No, we can't talk about that." No, I'm going to talk about it.

Julian: Right.

Tim: I think the really cool part, again, is the cultural competence, and knowing that I can show up, I can be myself and I can use these clinical skills and be able to use the information that I get from my clients and the things that I'm seeing to put together the best approach to helping them as possible. I think that's been really, just that evolution and growth for me and then being comfortable in and just what I'm doing. That's been really probably the coolest part.

Julian: Yeah, I mean, I completely understand. You know, I know we're both in professions where there are not a whole group of us that are Black men in this particular role. And it's such an impact, not only to ourselves and the work we get to do, but the people that work with us and seeing us in this role.

The listeners know I'm an assistant principal in a high school in Philadelphia, and something that you and I have spoken about is really trying to elevate the work you do in the schools, specifically in high schools and specifically with sports. I'd love for you to talk more about your idea of how you can integrate sports with the idea of getting kids to start taking care of their mental health.

Tim: Yeah. One of the things that I'm hoping to really do is to help teach our young kids around about mindfulness. The ability to be as present as possible in any moment or anything they're doing, and to be able to tap into what's going on for them inside of them. And I don't like to generalize, but I'll speak, I like to speak in themes. I think a lot of things we deal with are very externally facing, right?

So, it's really about what's going on in the world that impacts me, right? And then not really checking in beyond our maybe flight, freeze, or fawn responses, which is like, you know, your ability to defend yourself, right? Your ability to run away. Sometimes you freeze and sometimes you succumb. But also, just really checking in with myself at any given moment.

And I think that's important for athletes because athletes, you have to create tension, right? Because sports is competitive, and so there's tension, there's angst, there's worry, there's anxiety, there's fearlessness, there's all these emotions that come in, right? And then there's disappointment.

So, how do I deal with disappointment? How do I deal with a loss? Well, how do I deal with a bad performance, right? And I think that's something that if we can teach our kids that, they'll be able to make better decisions because they're not making decisions under duress, whether it's actual duress or perceived duress. Perceived duress could be, "Somebody disrespects me, and I got to respond." What does that truly mean? If I had to respond when somebody disrespects me, do I really have to respond? Right?

Julian: Well, according to our young man...

Tim: You do, yeah.

Julian: Right. And that's something that, as again, we understand that there's something we're taught.

Tim: Yeah.

Julian: Right? From the beginning, whether it's explicitly taught or not, it's expressed that somebody comes at you, you have to show that show of strength no matter what.

Tim: And so, for me, it's like, can I have a moment to reflect that what's really going on with that person that make them come at me, right? So, if I didn't do anything, if I didn't make no comments or write an LOL some on Twitter or whatever, Instagram, if I knew anything this person who just wants to fight me for no reason, that's on you. That's your energy.

Julian: Yeah, I think you're on to something. Because thinking about kids all the way from babies all the way up until they're grown and even grown people. One, sports is one of the most universal equalizers. It's one of the things that universities recognize to unify people across cultures. And if you think about the impact that coaches and other people in sports have on youth, if they chose to integrate mindfulness into their programming, how much would that change it? I mean, where it's not just coming from this one subset of people, this is coming from the people that really make the difference.

And so, I'm thinking about all of our parents, all of our listeners out there with students of learning and thinking and differences, we talk a lot about the idea of developing these skills to manage and regulate. How do we integrate these mindfulness techniques into the everyday things that we do?

Tim: Yeah, my dream and my goal would be like, it's not just the athletes, but then it's like a community thing, right? The more in our community we can get to really learn about managing stress and learn about emotional regulation, the better decision-making we'll have in those moments because it comes down to decisions in those moments.

Julian: You know, I never thought I would ever have a conversation like this, if I'm being honest with you. Two brothers talking about therapy and mental health of that nature. You know, and I think especially in our community, we're really used to suffering in silence. We kind of are told, "You keep family business inside the house, you know, you don't go out and share what's going on. You've got to put up the front to not show anybody that you're soft."

And even the idea of therapy has been only in recent times come up as a conversation point. I'm interested to know for your own situation, you mentioned how when you did seek therapy, you didn't tell your family at first. How come you didn't want to share it with them?

Tim: You know, I think it was, it wasn't from a space of like guilt or shame or anything, I think I was just really on my own journey. And so, I appreciate now just being able to share and tell my story because 10 years ago I wouldn't be able to talk about my story like this, right? Talk about the idea of relying on a substance because I didn't feel good about myself. I want to be able to do that. And so, I just appreciate where I am now, and I advocate, and I shout it out as much as possible.

Julian: And what's the response from your family now? I'm thinking of some of the older generation. You mentioned that your family are Liberian, and my father was a Cuban immigrant. So, you know, I understand that there's definitely a stigma, especially in the immigrant community.

Tim: Yes. I mean, it's still there. It's not something we're all like just having a free and open conversation. The stigma is still there. But at the same time, the thing that really has helped me is the idea that I am a therapist. And so, people my family, you know, they come to me for free therapy and I'm like, "It doesn't work that way. You should see somebody who can really see the full picture and that because that connection can sometimes skewer my ability to do the work that I need to do."

But I think the thing that really I try to do best is just to chat, tell my story, talk to people about the depression I went through, talk to my family members about just the space that I'm in. I'm just comfortable in my skin. And that's I think that's really important. I'm just very comfortable with who I am and where I am. And so I'm able to share things because I'm not really worried about backlash or what people will say or think too much. And I think that's like the, that's the one of the biggest hurdles. If we can get over that as a community, man, we will be doing a lot better.

Julian: Yeah, that's something that when I walk the halls, I talk to the kids and say, "You know how you know you're grown? When you don't care about other people think of you."

Tim: Yeah.

Julian: That's when you know you made it to adulthood. It's not the bills, it's not the responsibilities. It's your own capacity to understand, "Are you comfortable with who you are and can you walk out in this space and just be like, 'I'm good. I'm fine with who I am." Let me ask, what would you say to somebody who is super worried about what other people think?

Tim: One of the first things that I would say you need to do is just really understand where that's coming from. If you can start to understand where you learned that from, then you'll start to understand, "That was something that was planted in me. And I can take that out," right? Because the idea is that if this person or if this community or if this world thinks this thing about me, my life is over, right? I'll lose something.

The idea is like really being comfortable in who you are, and that comes from within. And if I do say negative things about myself, I need to start turning that around and understanding "Why do I say negative things about myself? Why do I have a negative self-image?", right? Those are questions we start to ask. And when we really start to break those things down, we'll understand that they're not that deep. Now, here's the other part, though.

Sometimes those messages come from the people we love the most. And that is something that culturally that's hard to kind of process. The people we love the most, giving us these negative messages, that's hard to process because then you're like, "It's got to be true. It's the person I love the most, the people who are raised in me, the people who gave me life, sometimes talk the most bad about me. So, it's got to be true."

And I will say that's on the adults, that's on those people to look themselves in the mirror and think, "Why are you not building that child up and you tearing that child down?"

Julian: I mean, I'm sitting here as a father and you're making me think about all the messages that I'm giving to my own children. Am I constantly reinforcing the positivity? Like you said. Tim, I want you to talk a little bit about positive self-talk. I know that you've made it a practice to recite affirmations with your son daily, right? And affirmations is free, but you do it daily.

Tim: Yeah.

Julian: If you don't mind, can you share some of what the affirmations are?

Tim: I started these affirmations with my son when he was about three or probably four years old, when he could actually put words together and speak, and two things that we put together, two statements. The first statement was my son's name is Quentin, so it was "I am Quentin Massaquoi and I am a champion." And now I would have him repeat that. He was about 4 or 5 years old, barely put words together, but he's "I'm Quentin Massaquoi and I'm a champion."

And it's interesting now as he's 11 years old, the place we talk the most is in the car. Once I build that foundation, now we start talking about dealing with the world, because that's when a message can really get confusing. How you deal with other people, how you deal with situations.

My son went through that in second and third grade. My son goes to a predominantly white school and, you know, second, third grade, a kid told them his skin looked like poop, right? And so, we went through that process. We went through and went through our emotions, but then we reaffirmed. He knew his skin was beautiful, so he knew what that kid said didn't make any sense.

My son was subjected to the early stages of racism at 6, 7 years old, right? Or however — 5 years old, however old he was. But my son has something in him that something externally couldn't come in and damage that because it was so strong in his foundation that he could check it against who he was and dismiss it. That's what affirmations do, right? That's the importance, and that's the power of an affirmation. Because, you know, you build yourself and you build your child up to be able to withstand the hate in the world in some situations.

Julian: What are some examples of affirmations that the listeners could potentially use now, especially with that age group?

Tim: It's about building our kids up to look at themselves in the mirror and be proud of what they see. So, is "You're beautiful," right? "You are loved." Let them know they're seen. But you got to back it up. Got to back it up, right? You got to bring that data. You just can't say it and then move on. You got to show it, right?

So, that means "I'm not just talking to you when you do something wrong. I'm noticing when you're doing the right thing, and I'm proud of you for doing the right thing. If you didn't make your bed up four days out of five days or a week, that one day when you make it up, I'm to make a big deal out of it. Like, I'm proud of you. You remembered, you did what you're supposed to do. You make me happy when you do that." That's the information we got to start downloading in our kids.

Julian: Well, I could say that in this Saavedra household, we start our mornings, "You are smart, you are wonderful, you are beautiful, you are caring, you are responsible. We love you."

Tim: That's it.

Julian: Tim, I got to be honest with you, man. I appreciate just the chance to talk through all of these different things, to hear your story. You are an inspiration to so many people, and I just can't say enough about how much I gained personally from this conversation. Our listeners, I'm sure, are going to be able to implement a lot of the things that you mentioned, but, any last thoughts that you'd like to share?

Tim: These conversations are important. We have to have them delicately, right? Because sometimes people speak about these things from a one-sided perspective and from a general perspective. And I think it's important that we're able to present these conversations and these topics, not just not about affirmation, but just in general about mental health.

Because you said something earlier that I resonated with, not everybody can, it's not just the accessibility, but not everybody needs to go to therapy, right? It's about different ways to take care of yourself that's important. So, if therapy is not for you, that's OK. But it doesn't mean you stop there, right? You find the thing that's going to help you heal and that's what you will pursue.

So, it's important to understand that we might have to customize our healing. And if you do need therapy, there's organizations out here, there's The Ladipo Group, there's a couple of organizations out here that are doing some great work, and there's the Black therapists out here who can help our community. So, I think that's really important to say.

Julian: Again, listeners, this was an amazing conversation. And again, I just want to thank you to Tim for joining us today. Listeners, before we go, I want to remind you of some very helpful resources that promote good mental health. I also want to mention just a few, and we'll link them in the show notes.

One, Tim's podcast, "Mind Ya Mentals," blow that podcast up. It is amazing, I can vouch for it. Secondly, "Therapy for Black Girls," it's a website and also another podcast that you can check out. And of course, Understood's Wunder app. It has a ton of information that can help support you. Please be sure to check these out. They are all incredible. Listeners, thank you so much for listening, and thank you so much for joining us today, Tim. We appreciate you.

Tim: Thank you for having me, Julian. I appreciate you.

Julian: You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at OpportunityGap@understood.org.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

Host

  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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