FEATURED INTERVIEW: Daniel Mango Breaks Down 'Hip Hop Therapy' & the State of Black Mental Health

One of the best aspects of hip hop is how it connects with hard-to-reach groups, particularly men within the black community. On top of the PTSD we face just growing up as products of our environment, black men and others in underrepresented communities are at higher risk of developing all kinds of mental health problems. We are more likely to experience worsened mental health outcomes, in part, due to socioeconomic disparities, and are less likely to use mental health services. So, today as we gear up for my favorite month of the year, we're discussing mental health in the black community and the power of "hip hop therapy." It's a term I hadn't heard before, but I was intrigued when I heard the combination of these two important themes in my life--hip hop music and mental wellness. 

May is mental health awareness month, so it made sense to feature San Francisco based mental health expert, educator, and racial justice activist, Daniel Mango. Hip Hop Therapy is a conceptualization he knows well, and we got a chance to chat about his role as Director of the Black Mental Health Program at International Mental Health Association and learn more about his work.

Mango has loved music his whole life and as a social worker & therapist, he's been pretty passionate about wanting to improve mental health in Black communities, hip hop therapy is a particular interest in his practice.

What is hip hop therapy? That's a new term for me. Can you unpack that? .... I mean, what is that what you do? 


Hip hop therapy is a mode of therapy that uses hip hop music as a way to reduce depression and anxiety, improve emotional expression, expand communication and interpersonal skills, and lift one’s self-esteem. If a therapist’s client is interested in hip-hop culture, the therapist can use this modality to engage the client in a way that is more culturally specific to parts of their identity. In hip-hop therapy, the client and therapist listen to and analyze rap lyrics. Through this process, the client can explore their thoughts and feelings through the media they enjoy most. Many times, you can use hip-hop therapy as an intervention to get something done. Working with clients or groups of youth to make mixtapes that have a message is also one of the benefits of hip-hop therapy. This music can be used to affect policy or engage in social change. 


I don’t do hip-hop therapy full time, it is a skill I use when needed, especially when working with kids in “urban” schools, where microaggressions, Eurocentric curriculum, and excessive discipline interfere with these kids’ growth and development. I found hip-hop therapy when I was looking for a way to engage kids that was more collaborative and youth-led. I also love hip-hop so I wanted to find a way to use my knowledge to help others heal. 


What is the state of Black mental health? 


Black mental health is in flux right now. Black Americans are facing a myriad of mental health issues and face a lot of barriers to getting care. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these inequities in health and mental health care. Right now, therapy is very Eurocentric and based on white middle-class values of what mental wellness “should” look like. This doesn’t help Black people. Black people have different cultural needs that need to be respected, not erased. Luckily, there is a path to getting more Black people into mental health care. By using an Afrocentric lens, therapists are able to meet the spiritual and cultural needs of Black identifying individuals that view Black people differently than the current medical model does, which positions Blacks as deficient and needed to be “fixed”. Afrocentricism centers on the strengths of Black people because it takes into account their needs and worldview. 


Are there any issues that complicate mental health delivery in the African Diaspora? 


Some of the biggest issues that complicate mental health delivery in the Africa Diaspora consist of lack of access (insurance), stigma, history of healthcare atrocities against Black people, provider bias, inequality of care, and lack of culturally-relevant therapies. Also the so-called “universality” of mental health care. This is not true, and really hurts communities because they are not able to utilize their ancient knowledge to heal. Instead, their culture is dubbed “inferior” and they must adapt to Western practices rather than the other way around. I think if we truly want to serve members of the African Diaspora, we must listen to the people we intend to serve. What is it that they need? How can I help without imposing my own worldview onto them? How can we work together to create a mental health system that works for this community?


Tell me about the Black Mental Health Fellowship Program. 


Several fellowships exist throughout the global mental health space, but there isn't much dedicated to serving the African diaspora. Because of this, we facilitate co-designed fellowships for young people from the African diaspora who are passionate about mental health and doing things differently. Fellowships under this program are highly individualized, multi-impact experiences - no two fellowships are the same. These fellowships are designed to help those who don’t have access to mainstream mental health education and would like to make an impact on the communities they serve. The world is highly diverse, mental health is the same way. One size doesn’t fit all, we need to work alongside communities to make changes that will positively impact future generations. 


What drives your interest in mental health. For my readers who may be interested in a career in mental health. 


The main thing that drives my interest in mental health is to relieve people of suffering. I’ve been through a lot in my life, I have a lot of trauma and this trauma has affected all parts of my life. I never processed this trauma and it led to some of my own mental health challenges. I think of myself as a “wounded healer”, someone who is hurt but works at the same time to heal themselves and the world around them. For people interested in mental health, you don’t need lived experience to be a great mental health worker, but you definitely need to be able to listen deeply, check your bias, be humble, know that you will be learning forever, and let the client take the lead if you don’t understand their cultural background. 


Can you tell them about your training? Where’d you go to school? What did you study? 


I am a social worker by trade, being a therapist is second to that. I went to social work school in Boston, MA. I went to a pretty famous school, Boston University where I completed my MSW. Social work school can be fun at times, you are learning a lot and exploring your own bias and growing from that. Unfortunately, Black people like me weren’t represented at the school I went to. We never learned about Black social work, I never knew it existed but it did. We only learned about our white counterparts and their successes. However, there was a whole movement that was helping Black people, led by Black people without the support of the racist U.S. government and white social workers who upheld the belief of segregation. I am on a mission to change this. We need to center and amplify these Black social work pioneers who led the way for me to be who I am today. 


How are you linked to the Diaspora?


I recently found out that I am a member of the African Diaspora. About 3 years ago, I did a DNA test to confirm my heritage. My whole life I suspected that I was Black but was told differently. I was treated as a Black man my whole life so it was strange to not be Black. I always suspected this but couldn’t confirm it. Now I am on a mission to learn more about my roots but also to connect with the Diaspora because there are many people like me out there who are lost and need some guidance.  

Daniel grew up in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States and moved between Pennsylvania and New Jersey as a child. In his late-teen's he enlisted in the United States Army, serving in South Korea. After his service he spent years studying and traveling internationally. Before his social work career, Daniel spent years as a teacher and played professional basketball in Spain. In 2018, he made the career-change into social work, attending Boston University's Master of Social WorkIn 2020, he was honored with Future of Social Work Award, by the National Association for Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter.


Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/blackMHprogram
Twitter: https://twitter.com/blackMHprogram


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