If it surprises you that radio host, TV personality, and bestselling author Charlamagne tha God is a mental health advocate, you’re not alone: He too was taken aback when the label was first used to describe him. It happened at an event two years ago, when, alongside Tracie Jade and Taraji P. Henson, the event’s host introduced him as such. Henson’s response to his claim that he wasn’t an advocate? “Yes, you are, brother. Whether you want to be or not, you are. So you should embrace it.”
Embrace it, he has. Charlamagne casually refers to mental health advocacy as “just something I decided to make my life’s work,” but his work in the field is quite serious. He maintains that he’s no expert at anything, but rather is just a person who decided to share people’s stories. That sharing has been hugely impactful for many, to say the least.
From the internal impulse that led him to publicly disclose his mental health struggles to how he views the ability to heal oneself as a superpower, we dove deep to learn how an anxiety-ridden Lenard McKelvey from Moncks Corner, South Carolina grew into personality and philanthropist Charlamagne tha God.
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In his book, “Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks On Me,” Charlamagne talks about how he didn’t discover he had anxiety until he was in his 30s. He suffered from panic attacks, and each time he had one, he went to the emergency room thinking he was having a heart attack, only to be told his heart was perfectly healthy. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed him, but Charlamagne tells us that “even when I first got diagnosed with anxiety, I didn’t know what to do with it,” as no treatments were recommended to him.
With enough introspection, Charlamagne would eventually realize anxiety was the lens through which he’d been viewing life for as long as he could remember.
“As you get older and you start doing the work on yourself, and you start peeling back the layers of your life and realizing all of these different things that you grew up on,” he says. “It was right there, under your nose the whole time.”
As with any condition, having a diagnostic term empowers us to seek treatment, but that doesn’t mean we know where to begin. It would be numerous years, a New York Times best-selling book, a national best-selling book, and a successful television show later before Charlamagne found the right tools to manage his anxiety.
I already knew that Charlamagne finds therapy to be an integral part of his wellness, but beyond that, I found myself a little hesitant to ask about how he manages his anxiety. That’s because celebrities often employ expensive and inaccessible wellness tools that aren’t of much use to the average person. Charlamagne’s practices, though, couldn’t be simpler or more proven to work.
He says meditation is key, but it wasn’t an easy road to get into it before quarantine. “Meditation was something that I never could do,” Charlamagne says. “I could never quiet my brain enough to actually get into meditation, but I got into it at the end of 2020…I think with the pandemic, just being at home, and being forced to be still, helped a lot of us to understand what quiet time really looks like and what peace really looks like.”
Self-care also plays an important role for Charlamagne. While we often think of self-care as having to be either costly or Instagrammable, his methods are pretty straightforward for the average person. Before our conversation, Charlamagne had a haircut and a mani-pedi, referencing it as one way of providing himself self-care.
Other practices of his are equally viable for most people. Additional examples include “really zoning out to some music,” unplugging from social media and cell phones, exercise, chanting, mindfulness, and good conversation. As far as conversation goes, he notes that “you got to be cognizant of the people that make your energy go up and the people that make your energy go down. The people that make your energy go up, that’s what you really want to embrace and just having those…entertaining conversations can be very empowering for you.”
Lastly, Charlamagne espouses the importance of being in physical contact with nature. He says, “I love grounding. I love when it’s summertime and I can take my shoes off and go walk barefoot in my yard. As crazy as it sounds…I am, literally, outside, hugging a tree, putting my forehead to it, sitting down next to it, laying on my back against it, putting my head against it, all of that. It makes me feel better and it gets me back to a good place.”
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Black people in America regularly receive substandard health care, so it makes sense that once Charlamagne got a handle on his own mental health, he’d use his platform to help others. Much of it came about organically; he talks of connecting people to professionals who can help them “in an affordable way, or…a free way.”
He says that “there are so many different organizations out here, like Black Men Heal in Philadelphia,” which he discovered by way of an article he came across on Instagram. He tells us, “The headline said ‘a mental health organization providing free therapy for men in Philadelphia’ so immediately I’m like, whoa. And then I looked them up, and they take donations and they have psychiatrists and therapists who donate their time, and they pay them through the donations that they get. And they have helped a lot of different people.”
Charlamagne credits discovering Black Men Heal as part of the inspiration for his own subsequent mental health organization, the Mental Wealth Alliance. About his organization, he says that “we want to provide free therapy services to more than 10 million Black Americans over the next five years. And we plan to do that through raising money. I’m a person who probably can raise money faster than an organization like Black Men Heal. So when I get it, I give it right to them.”
Beyond connecting Black people to therapists, Charlamagne wants to transform the mental health care that Black people and other people of color receive into a better, more useful model.
“We want to train the next generation of psychiatrists and therapists, we want to be able to provide them with scholarships and money to where they can get their certification, especially Black and brown people, because I feel like we need more…culturally competent psychiatrists and therapists in that field,” he says.
To hear Charlamagne speak of this work, you’d think he was talking about helping a friend. He’s humble in ways one wouldn’t expect considering the size of his platform—he reaches millions of listeners and viewers between The Breakfast Club and his Comedy Central show “Tha God’s Honest Truth”—and he speaks gently about the change he’s helping create.
This work, he says, “‘is literally about pointing people in the right direction. I’m always blessed to meet different people that are already in this field that have been doing this work for years. And I feel like I’m just that person to say, ‘Hey, y’all looking for help? I know where it is.’ Because people come to me all the time. And I’m like, ‘Man, I’m no expert at anything. I just have some experiences. And I’m just the person who decided to share their stories.'”
As for how much he has disclosed about his own mental health challenges, which could easily be considered the impetus to this path, Charlamagne says he’s been compelled to do that because “you can’t heal what you don’t reveal.”
“I would be very disingenuous if I had conversations with individuals about things that they were going through and I wasn’t expressing things that I went through,” he explains.
Seeing how strongly he could help create change enabled Charlamagne to go all-in on mental health advocacy, but he did so with the knowledge that trauma can run for centuries through families. There were numerous occurrences, such as the deaths by suicide of two of his close friends in 2020, and the viewing of Nipsey Hussle’s murder video that made him realize how trauma continues to thread through generations, harming each of us as it did our ancestors prior.
Where most of us would only be full of shock watching the murder, Charlamagne found himself struck by the obvious pain of Hussle’s murderer.
“It was just one part where he kicked Nipsey, Nipsey was on the ground,” he says about his experience watching the video. “And I said that brother’s hurting. That brother is in real, real, real pain. And because I knew Nipsey and I know his people, his family, having conversations with a lot of them after the fact you just realize how that trauma is a circle. Somebody traumatized that guy who killed Nip. He killed Nip and then he passed that trauma to Nip and he just ended up passing it to his whole family.”
“This is generational…if you don’t get help, if you don’t get the healing that you need. So it was all those different situations that just made me say, man, I’m really gonna commit my life to just helping and helping people heal, especially Black people…especially Black people.”
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Finding out his own father had suffered with mental health issues was also pivotal for Charlamagne. It further underscored the need for mental health to be discussed in order for healing to occur. He believes his own issues in his youth would have been more manageable had he any idea that his father also struggled. Charlamagne says his father didn’t know about his anxiety until reading his book, at which point he disclosed his own hardships.
His father told him, “‘I was on 10 to 12 different medications throughout my life. And I was going to therapy two or three times a week and, 30 years ago I wanted to kill myself. Well, the reason I didn’t was because of you and your older sister.'”
Upon learning this, he says, “I’m sitting there on the phone like, man, if you had told me this earlier, you know how much trouble you would have saved me?”
Witnessing his father’s struggles, including substance abuse and sleeping with a knife and gun by his bedside in case “the devil” visited, Charlamagne thought that such behavior was commonplace.
“For me growing up, I literally thought that was normal,” he shares. “So when it started happening to me, I just thought that that’s the way it was. But that was the generational trauma of him trying to deal with his issues.”
To break the cycle, copious change is required. Charlamagne says, “I understand that a lot of it is learned behavior, and just like any other learned behavior, you can unlearn a lot of things. That’s where I’m at right now in my life at 43 years old. I’ll be feeling like I don’t even speak as confidently as I probably used to simply because I’m not sure of things like I thought I once was.”
That lack of surety can be a great thing, it turns out. Charlamagne thinks that “we do have to continue to learn, for the rest of our lives…Life does not come with any instruction manual. And all, all of us are just figuring this out on the fly. And if you’re actually doing life right, then there’s always new things to learn.”
He summarizes how to move forward with the simple concept, “Be the adult that you needed as a child,” and notes that “I love stories of growth. I love stories of evolution.”
When Charlamagne told me that therapy has made him a better man, it made me wonder about how he navigates the relationship between being so publicly vulnerable with living in a culture that often shuns men for that exact trait. His response?
don’t think masculinity is anything now.
Rather than being concerned with what a man “should” be—whether that’s openly admitting to getting a mani-pedi or sharing publicly about deeply personal emotional pain—Charlamagne instead embraces a better reality: one in which he is proudly and loudly himself, whether or not that fits society’s standards of masculinity. He tells us that “vulnerability is just being human. All humans are vulnerable. We’re actually more vulnerable than we are anything else. That’s why we put all of these guards up.”
At age 17, Charlamagne got a tattoo of Wolverine. At the time, tattoos were illegal in South Carolina. He says, “The reason I always gravitated towards Wolverine was because his superpower is healing.” He believes that every version of himself—from eight-year-old Lenard to The Breakfast Club host Charlamagne tha God—deserves healing. It was what Charlamagne felt for decades he needed for himself, and what he now understands he’s capable of providing for others, too.
“I knew that healing was what I always wanted for myself,” he admits. “And ultimately, what I think is going to become my life’s work…helping people to heal.”
Charlamagne notes that masculinity “is just a word,” and that when he looks back upon those who performed tasks for him that we think of as masculine, such as offering him protection, the examples in his life are gender-inclusive. He says that “our jobs are to protect, provide in love, and [you got to] protect yourself. And if you protect yourself, you’ll protect others and you got to provide safe spaces for other humans.”
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There’s so much to be taken by with this unassuming man who somewhat jokingly calls himself a God. In our conversation, I found myself surprised repeatedly by how deep, and how no-holds-barred real Charlamagne is.
He owns his past mistakes in a forthright, blatant manner that’s rare to find, and is willing to tell the public about those mistakes so as to be a positive example of growth and change. Of this, Charlamagne explains, “I’m taking people on that journey with me. I didn’t just wake up one day and flip the switch…I was having these conversations on the radio.” He persevered through the discomfort, and continues to for the sake of helping others, saying, “I was in a very tender place and I still am in a lot of ways. But you got to take people on that journey with you.”
Charlamagne still deals with anxiety, saying that “it doesn’t really ever settle,” but he acknowledges that discussing it publicly has helped immensely. He’s looking to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues, along with assisting others in getting care.
His organization, the Mental Wealth Alliance, is a resource for everything from articles on mindfulness to workshops, events, and courses for youth and adults. He believes in the power of intention, and that intention is clear: he says that “all of that comes to love. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.”