SESSIONS writer Ifeyinwa Frederick on why she wrote her play about black men in therapy

·6-min read
Joseph Black in  SESSIONS  (The Other Richard)
Joseph Black in SESSIONS (The Other Richard)

I hated going to therapy. I hated that I apparently needed this thing to make me feel better. I hated the weekly questionnaire designed to assess my non-existent progress. I hated that it wasn’t working quickly enough. And I hated that there was no obvious reason for all the sadness I was feeling. As much as I tried, I couldn’t pinpoint the big thing that had happened in my life to have driven me to therapy. This me was aged 23 when I first started writing SESSIONS, my new show about to open at the Soho Theatre, as a short play. At the time, I was too embarrassed to talk freely about the therapy process, but it constantly preoccupied my mind and I found myself writing about it.

Whilst struggling in silence is something that most of us have been socialised to do, this notion is even more prevalent and pervasive amongst men. There is a reason why suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. Men are encouraged to dissociate from their emotions so much that it’s seen almost as a mark of manhood to swallow what they’re feeling and to just get on with it. As a society, we give little space for men to be vulnerable and many men aren’t even aware that something is wrong until they reach crisis point.

When one of my male friends recently said in passing that he’d been finding it difficult to go to the gym, he made it sound like it was a simple case of lacking fitness motivation. I think that’s what he thought it was. But as we continued talking, it became clear that that was just one symptom of his worsening mental health. Thankfully that conversation ended with him accepting that something was wrong but that’s not always the case. Often the conversation isn’t had in the first place.

Talking alone is not always enough to feel better. But not talking is also a recipe for feeling worse. The silence of young men surrounding their emotions is deafening. But at the same time, if we want to encourage conversation, we also need to recognise that the language of depression, therapy and mental health can be alienating. It’s a big ask for someone who’s been socialised to see being vulnerable as a sign of weakness to suddenly open up to a stranger, especially when they’re continuing to receive counter-narratives outside of the therapy room.

Ifeyinwa Frederick (Chantel King)
Ifeyinwa Frederick (Chantel King)

The combination of toxic masculinity, societal pressures and the general difficulty of navigating mental health challenges is what SESSIONS explores, all through the lens of Tunde, a young black man. And Tunde’s blackness is important. There are next to no references to his blackness in the script. But it matters. Because if, as a society, we give little space for men to be vulnerable, for black men we give none. Media portrayals of black men so rarely show their sensitive side - the emotional range limited to hard emotions like anger and jealousy. But that’s not the reality. I was raised by a soft, loving father and my brother and I have hugged as we’ve cried and yet I never get to see these men represented. But they exist and they like their white male counterparts also have their own mental health challenges. Yet, whilst there are a gradually increasing number of groups talking about male mental health, black men are rarely seen. This both perpetuates the belief to black men that vulnerability is not for them, and for others to believe that black men can’t be vulnerable.

Today I’m a vocal advocate of therapy; I love my current therapist and I’m actually grateful I started my therapy journey so long ago. But back then in 2016, aged 23 I didn’t know anyone else that had been to therapy other than me. My expectation of therapy and “recovery” from depression was based on media portrayals and online blogs about mental health. And the stories were all the same. Person A experiences mental health difficulties, Person A talks to someone or goes to therapy, Person A recovers and mental health difficulty disappears. Person A then goes on to lead a successful life. So, in 2017 when I found myself back in therapy for the third time in my life, I felt like a failure. I was two years into running my Nigerian tapas restaurant and I was convinced that unless I could stop depression and anxiety from ever appearing in my life again, I would never be able to achieve the business success I dreamt of.

But I was wrong. Over the years, I learnt and I am still learning (because it’s a process) that progress isn’t linear, that therapy is messy and difficult and not as formulaic as an Ikea flatpack. I also realised that those “recovery” narratives were mis-selling the truth. For many people, myself included, our mental health challenges are something we have to learn to live with and can live with as part of truly beautiful lives. I also never found the big thing that had caused me to need therapy in the first place. Instead, my therapist taught me that sometimes we reach crisis as the result of 1,000 small cuts never given any attention. If one experiences enough small hurts that go unchecked, the resultant feeling can be as significant as one big trauma.

Black men are expected never to show vulnerability, Frederick says (The Other Richard)
Black men are expected never to show vulnerability, Frederick says (The Other Richard)

And as I learnt all these lessons and returned to developing SESSIONS into a full-length play, I wanted to write something that conveyed the complexity of therapy and navigating depression. Over the years the mental health conversation has gained more momentum but it so often feels like the discussion stops at the point of advising someone to talk or seek help. Perhaps it’s fear of scaring people or perhaps it’s wanting to present a more hopeful narrative, but there’s not enough honesty about the fact that you can talk to someone and seek help and very much still struggle. That is not a failing on your part. There can be other complicating factors or it can be an indicator of the severity of your illness.

And so with SESSIONS I wanted to present an alternative narrative around therapy, around depression and around black male vulnerability in the hope to encourage others, especially black men, to let their walls down and for those listening to them, to give them the space to be truly vulnerable. Sounds heavy, right? But there are plenty of laughs thrown in there for good measure because I believe it’s when people have their mouths wide open in laughter that you can get the message in. So laugh loud and let it sink in.

Paines Plough’s SESSIONS by Ifeyinwa Frederick will run at Soho Theatre until December 4, painesplough.com/productions/sessions/

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