As a child, I rarely saw my father go to the doctor. No matter how sick he was, there was always a tendency to wait it out or use basic remedies, like over the counter medicines that often could not address more serious complications.
When I was in college, I made similar mistakes when it came to not seeking the best care that I needed. As a student, I turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress many teenagers face in their day-to-day lives. For me, it was a normal thing to get drunk and use drugs — as long as I was getting my work done, things seemed like they were OK. This trend continued for years until, one day, things got serious enough that an intervention was warranted.
Concerned for my safety and well-being, a close friend and college roommate got in touch with my mother and sounded the alarm bells; I was in a vulnerable mental space which required the care of loved ones and the guidance of professionals.
For me and my father, it wasn't (just) a reflection of a certain kind of tough-it-out masculinity that kept us from seeking the care we needed. Going to the doctor meant engaging with the bureaucracy that controls most Americans' access to health care. I witnessed what my parents went through with insurance agencies while trying to receive government assistance: Long phone calls, countless rejection letters, skyrocketing bills and sleepless nights wondering how we were going to access critical treatment.
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And so, for most of my early childhood and adult life, I embraced the same approach regardless of the severity of my mental or physical illness. I can recall many moments when I lay in bed sick, literally unable to carry out basic tasks because I opted to stay home instead of visiting the doctor to seek care. I didn’t believe access to quality, affordable health care was something to which I was entitled, let alone anything I could achieve.
Like millions of Americans across the country, I struggled with gaining access to quality, affordable health care because I didn't know my rights, what I deserved or even how to go about getting it. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-to-late 20s that I even obtained a primary care doctor, and only then because I realized that access to health care was my right, not a privilege. As I got older, I knew that I had to more fully embrace my responsibility of understanding the state of my health care because I was determined to shape my own future.
In August, I revealed that I once attempted suicide, back in 2006; I was in a place that wasn’t healthy and I suffered silently and alone. This episode was serious enough that I took the necessary steps to seek the professional help and treatment that I needed. My advocacy around mental health support is very much rooted in my own personal story.
Mental health and general wellness are often overlooked because they aren't something you can necessarily see, the way you can a broken bone or a case of the flu. I had to seek the treatment I needed to get better and, once I got through it, it inspired me to do more to help other Americans improve the quality of their lives as well.
My health care story isn’t that unique, but it is very much a part of who I am. Getting involved in promoting access to health care is so important to me because it is personal. So many Americans struggle with the fear and stigma associated with seeking health care, whether mental health care or wellness care, particularly in the Black LGBTQ+ community. Studies show that "sexual minority women and LGBTQ people of color report worse health status, more unmet healthcare needs, and perceived and actual discrimination or substandard care than sexual minority men and White, LGBTQ people." Other studies show that a significant proportion of LGBTQ+ people rely on community health centers for their medical care, but 13 states lack such centers.
Recent studies show there is currently a shortage of primary care doctors and that number is only exacerbated when you consider key factors that impact communities of color disproportionately. Studies show that African Americans are less likely to access primary care because of socioeconomic factors, like access to health insurance, and residential segregation, which can make primary care physicians more difficult to access.
As a father, a mental health professional and an openly gay Black man, I’ve used my platform to uplift issues that impact folks like me every single day, including HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention and mental health and wellness advocacy. I am dedicated to using my platform to bring awareness to issues that are often omitted in conversations about access to quality health care and ongoing health disparities in the LGBTQ+ community and in communities of color.
For instance, in 2016, I co-founded 6in10, an organization dedicated to ending the disparities in new HIV diagnosis rates among Black gay and bisexual men — six in 10 of whom were once expected to be diagnosed as positive by the age of 40 — by providing tailored mental health support through viral campaigns and community engagement. (This organization has now been absorbed by a larger agency with more resources.)
These are issues that I believe need to be at the forefront in the debate to protect access to quality, affordable health care, but neither can improve without that access. That is why I have joined the Health Care Voter campaign as a new co-chair to help mobilize voters for November 6.
I’m a proud father of two sons who are the joys of my life, and I believe we must all continue to do our part to make this world a better place for the next generation. This November, please join me in holding our lawmakers accountable in protecting our right to health care. So many lives depend on it.