Julius Boatwright, founder of local mental-health advocacy group Steel Smiling, was the first person who actually heard me when I spoke of loss. We met soon after I had released my debut comedy album Everyone’s Dead, named after I lost both my mother and brother within 13 months of each other. Boatwright stopped the conversation when I told him about it and asked thoughtful follow-up questions about my well-being, not the album. It was the first time in a year where I felt like someone actually saw me.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I talked to Boatwright about his advocacy work and what makes it so important.
Would you do me a favor and explain Steel Smiling for anyone who is unfamiliar with your organization?
Steel Smiling bridges the gap between community members and mental health support through education, advocacy, and awareness. A vital component of our grand vision is to expose every Black adult in the city of Pittsburgh to at least one mental health experience that improves their quality of life by 2030. Ideally, we’d love to perfect our community-based model to exceed this goal in Allegheny County and ultimately grow it to scale throughout the country.
Answering one specific question is at the core of our daily efforts: “How can we honor the humanity of each human being that we encounter through Steel Smiling?” We want our organizational partners, program participants, and trusted community members to know that they’re loved, valued, appreciated, heard, and not judged for being themselves. People can typically expect great food, chill music, intimate peer support, and a one-of-a-kind organic vibe when they come to our events and educational experiences. We’re striving to make mental health cool and comfortably accessible, especially for our Black and brown neighbors.
Time magazine recently had a cover story on mental health that some say lacked diversity in terms of human experience. As a Black man who advocates for mental health, what would you like to see in terms of representation in the media?
I actually read through some of the articles in that special edition of Time. In terms of their content, the writers and marketing folks were very intentional about covering a variety of current hot topics within the mental health arena. However, while I was sifting through and trying to emotionally connect with someone who even remotely looked like me, I was left feeling beyond disappointed. There were only a select few Black and brown experiences represented throughout the entire publication. However, it seemed as though they were strategically positioned on pages simply for the sake of meeting some type of pre-determined, stock-photo quota. I don’t know if this was their team’s actual intent, but perception is reality these days ...
I believe this issue is way more complicated than just looking at it from a “representation” perspective. Media outlets can be hyper-focused on having a plethora of visuals highlighting Black and brown mental health stories. However, if subtle racism, unaddressed privilege, and institutional strongholds aren’t destroyed, this will all be done for nothing. It begins and ends with those who are in power and oftentimes hold the key to perpetuating these problematic, limiting narratives. Until they consistently take it upon themselves to disrupt their own values that are implicitly and explicitly being upheld, we’ll continue to see the misrepresentation of our truths on mainstream, commercialized media platforms.
What is your advice to someone who has a friend struggling with severe depression and is expressing suicidal thoughts?
When I think about the word "advice," it almost makes it seem like I’m granting an individual access to something that they don’t already possess deep within themselves. The reason I’m highlighting this is because I always try my best to meet people exactly where they are, when they’re experiencing mental health growth moments. I genuinely empathize and therapeutically align with folks in a way that seeks to harness their own autonomy. If they’re experiencing a crisis and need immediate emergency support, I’d acknowledge their wants and do my due diligence to get them connected with the appropriate resources, as welcomed by them.
In my personal experiences with community members who express that they’re struggling, by simply acknowledging their freedom to process pain authentically, it helps them to reconnect with their own reasons for wanting to live and experience joy in life. Simply being present and not trying to force others to feel better can be magical too. I’ve had hundreds of instances when people have said to me, “This is the first time that someone has really listened to me.”
What mental health advice would you give your younger self now knowing what you know as an adult?
It’s definitely challenging to answer this question justly because hindsight is often 20/20. I’m a very spiritual person who believes that everything happens for a divine reason in our lives. I’m sure the adult Julius could tell the younger me that I shouldn’t feel depressed about being on welfare and growing up in public housing. I suppose that a wiser Julius could tell the youthful me that I shouldn’t consider completing suicide because there are people in the world who have it much worse than me. I guess the “grown” version of Julius could tell the teenage me that being anxious about life is completely within my control to cope with and resolve.
However, I don’t think that any of this advice would have served a productive purpose because my current self only wants to “fix” what I see as a problem. To be completely honest, I wouldn’t share any of this with my younger self. I’d actively listen, honor the humanity of our conversation, and acknowledge his beauty as a vulnerable human. To me, that’s what nurtures our mental health, wellness, and healing.