CHICAGO - When friends Tristan Lewis and Andrew Smith invited a few Black men to take part in a yoga class in Chicago in 2020, they didn’t know it would spur a nationwide movement.
The two men created The Healing, a nonprofit aimed at promoting mental health for Black men and offering resources for improvement. Services include events where participants can share with each other about various struggles or sessions with mental health professionals.
Most notably, the organization offers virtual yoga classes for Black men with the next one scheduled to place on Feb. 22.
"Our mission is to normalize the conversation and approach to mental health and wellness," Lewis, 36, told FOX Television Stations.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, in 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for African Americans between 15 and 24 years old. In 2018, the death rate from suicide for Black or African American men was four times greater than for African American women.
Tristan Lewis and Andrew Smith started the nonprofit The Healing to promote mental health and wellness among Black men. (The Healing Chi)
Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Smith, 32, and Lewis were connecting with other friends who were feeling uneasy about the state of the country.
"A lot of the guys that Tristan and I were connected to were feeling some of the same insecurities, some of the same struggles as it pertains to being a Black man in a transient city like Chicago," Smith explained.
The two men then had an idea to take some of the gym partners and do a yoga class. It was supposed to be a one-time session with seven men. But when 20 showed up, Smith and Lewis decided to make the yoga session a weekly class during the summer of 2020, bringing in instructors.
"A lot of guys came up to Tristan and I and mentioned that this is something they didn’t know they needed," Smith continued. "And they asked us when we were going to have the next session."
At its peak, more than 500 men were on the yoga class roster, according to Lewis.
Both men said launching the nonprofit made them realize the lack of Black men serving as mental health professionals, including yoga instructors. Lewis and Smith, along with the nonprofit’s board made up of all Black men, are currently pursuing their yoga certifications, hoping to receive them in May.
The nonprofit is also looking to raise $100,000 towards sponsoring four Black men to become yoga instructors, a holiday drive for a local Chicago school as well as other mental health resources.
The men also aim to reduce the stigma about receiving mental health help in the Black community.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, negative attitudes and beliefs towards people who have mental health challenges are prevalent within the U.S. and can be particularly strong within the Black community. One study showed that 63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness.
"I really believe Drew and I were just responding to what we believe was a solution during a time of heaviness," Lewis said.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.