When the television writer Cord Jefferson was awarded the Emmy Award for HBO’s “Watchmen,” his speech included the usual thanks to fellow writers, the director, the actors and his parents.
But in accepting his first Emmy, Mr. Jefferson may be most remembered for a thank you to someone who normally stays far behind the scenes in Hollywood — his therapist.
“Thank you to my therapist, Ian,” Mr. Jefferson said, initially eliciting laughs from the group of “Watchmen” supporters in the room. “I am a different man than I was two years ago. I love you. You have changed my life in many ways. Therapy should be free in this country.’’
Mr. Jefferson’s nod to his therapist and the need for greater access to therapy generated widespread comments on social media and numerous media requests for interviews. Mr. Jefferson said he wasn’t expecting such a big reaction.
“I had jotted down some names of people that I felt gratitude for, and I was thinking, ‘You know, I feel gratitude for Ian and the work we’ve done together. I should say his name,’” Mr. Jefferson said in an interview, adding that he didn’t want to publicly share his therapist’s last name. “I did not expect it to be received the way it’s been received. People have really liked it and appreciated it.”
Mr. Jefferson said the comment about the need for free therapy was unplanned and “off the cuff,” but he believes greater access to therapy is needed, particularly in the Black community.
“I think Black men are taught that stoicism is important and that in order to get along in America, it’s important to be stoic and keep a stiff upper lip and not know when things affect you and keep that bottled inside,” he said. “I think it has been important to me to abandon all those lessons and understand that stoicism isn’t a virtue, and that it’s OK to be in touch with your emotions and OK to think about these kinds of things. That it resonated with so many people I think speaks to the stigma people have about therapy and mental health care and admitting you are imperfect in those ways.”
Among the many racial disparities in health care, research shows a wide gap between white and Black patients when it comes to mental health services. Although rates of mental illness in the Black community are similar to those of the general population, the percent of Black adults receiving mental health care in 2018 was 8.7 percent, which is less than half the rate of white adults, 18.6 percent of whom receive care, according to 2018 data reported by the Office of Minority Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. And while 15 percent of white adults received a prescription medication for mental health in 2018, only 6 percent of Black adults were prescribed medication. Only one in three Black people who need mental health care receives it, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Experts say that when Black celebrities speak openly about attending therapy, they see a surge in calls from new patients who were inspired to seek help. The hip-hop artist Jay-Z talked about therapy in a 2017 interview with The New York Times. In 2018, the radio host known as Charlamagne Tha God published a memoir, “Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me,” in which he talked about the importance of therapy.
“I think it’s important for men especially to hear other men talk about it, because men deal with that extra masculinity stigma,” said Tasnim Sulaiman, a Philadelphia-area therapist and founder of BlackMenHeal.org, which provides free therapy to Black men. “You know there’s a man sitting on his couch who sees that and thinks, ‘If he says his life has been changed, maybe that could work for me.’”
The group is recruiting Black therapists around the country, particularly New York City, where it has a long waiting list, but it has been a challenge to find therapists of color. According to a 2018 report from the American Psychological Association’s Center for Workforce Studies, only 4 percent of therapists are Black. So far, BlackMenHeal.org has offered more than 600 therapy sessions to about 100 men. About 60 percent have continued with therapy after the free program ended, Ms. Sulaiman said.
“We ask our men to do what Cord did, to go out into their communities to talk to their peers, their cousins, sons, brothers and share their experience,” she said. “Cord just helped to create a safe space for men to step into a healing journey.”
Mr. Jefferson said he briefly started therapy in his 20s to deal with anger issues, but didn’t return to therapy until 2013, when his mother was given a diagnosis of cancer. A few years ago he started seeing his current therapist, who was referred to him by a friend. He said he believes his work in therapy has helped his career, which is why it was fitting to thank his therapist when he received the Emmy.
“The work of a TV writer is so much about thinking about characters and character motivation, things that go unsaid, and decisions that people make and why they make those decisions,” Mr. Jefferson said. “Sitting with someone every week and dissecting my own decisions and the connective tissue with something that happened in my childhood — sort of like sifting through details of my life — that helps so much when I think about characters and story. The introspection helps me out when I sit down to write.”
In addition to therapy, Mr. Jefferson said he has tried meditation, but has not been able to practice it consistently. He said he prefers to watch the feed from a web camera showing the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific time.
“Sometimes I will go to the live feed of the jellyfish tank and watch for 10 or 15 minutes and try to clear my mind,” Mr. Jefferson said. “It’s very soothing. I love it so much, I’ve thought of petitioning them to make it 24 hours a day.”
Mr. Jefferson started his career as a journalist, first as a White House reporter for The Root, covering the Obama administration, and later as a West Coast editor for Gawker.com. After writing a satirical article about white surfers rioting in Huntington Beach, followed by a deadpan television appearance on “All In With Chris Hayes,” Hollywood took notice. Soon Mr. Jefferson had an agent and began a career writing for television, including the shows “Survivor’s Remorse,” “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” “The Good Place" and, most recently, “Watchmen.”
But it was a moment early in his career at The Root that has stayed with him. He was reporting on a White House summit about Black men and H.I.V. when he spoke with a doctor who believed that investing in free therapy would ultimately translate into lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases by helping people better cope with emotional issues and self destructive behaviors.
“That stuck with me,” Mr. Jefferson said. “I really do think if we gave more of a damn about people’s mental well-being, we’d see a lot of issues in society decline, a lot of the problems that plague us, you’d see a drop in those kinds of behaviors.”
Mr. Jefferson said he’s happy that his Emmy speech has resonated with so many people.
“If people remember it for thanking my therapist, I think that’s good,” he said. “I really do believe therapy is incredibly important, and I really do believe it should be free.”
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