'Empire's' Bryshere Gray talks to Philly students about mental health

In the Girard College auditorium, Kamren Washington-Richards, 16, told a group of hundreds he was 8 when his hair began falling out.

He wrung his hands and fidgeted as he got emotional while sharing his story at Monday's BEyond Expectations, a series for young men of color that promotes mental-health awareness.

Washington-Richards, a student at Boys Latin of Philadelphia, was soon diagnosed with alopecia universalis, a condition that leads to hair loss.

"I felt like a walking joke," he said in an interview. At the time, he was attending a predominantly white school in Maryland, and his alopecia led to more ridicule in a space where he had already felt isolated and misunderstood.

At this school, he says, "they knew hip-hop but they didn't know black people."

BEyond Expectations is a collaboration between First Person Arts and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). Seven students were selected to tell their stories in front of hundreds of students, government officials including Mayor Kenney and School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and Empire star Bryshere Gray, also known as Yazz the Greatest.

"We wanted youth to hear stories of people in their own voices," said Arthur C. Evans, DBHIDS commissioner.

Those voices included Gray, who stepped up to the mic and shared anecdotes about his tenacious climb to stardom. Born in Germantown and raised in West Philadelphia, Gray told students, "I was homeless, and I'm on the biggest show in the world now. I'm living proof that you all can do whatever you all want to do."

Having positive people in his life like his mother, manager Charlie Mack, and friends and family helped him focus on the positive. Gray also said he wished he had had more guidance growing up and cites mentors like Will Smith and the Roots' Black Thought for his continued success.

"They lived it," Gray said in an interview that morning. "They've been in the game longer. You really have to listen, and it saves you from making mistakes they may have made."

During a talk-back, Gray was asked how he coped with stress. He told students it's OK to cry - he does.

The students' stories were raw. Each began with a brief poem, and then they told stories of challenges and triumph. There was the young boy who loves show tunes and musicals even though he's been told that's "for white people"; the football player who goes to a therapist; the kid who saw domestic abuse, drug dealing, and murder firsthand; the student who went through the foster-care system; the young man who attempted suicide.

The event gave students the opportunity to regain control over their image and narrative, something Evans says is important when discussing mental health.

"Men of color face a unique set of issues within this societal context," Evans said. "When [they] don't have the opportunity to articulate that, those issues can be ignored. "

Evans says a number of issues marginalize men of color, including violence, subpar education, and lack of economic opportunity.

"Disproportionately, the youth in juvenile justice in this country are young males, many of whom have mental-health challenges, and [they] are more likely to be labeled as bad," Evans said,

He hopes this event will encourage open dialogue in communities of color about mental and emotional health. This conversation is particularly important to the executive director of First Person Arts, Jamie J. Brunson.

"If your heart isn't well, none of the things you thought were success mean anything," Brunson said. "I'm 51 and I'm just learning that. . . . I don't want them to wait until 51."

sballin@phillynews.com
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