By: Joshua Ocampo/Mens
Darian Hall quit his job to find a higher purpose. Two years later, after realizing that there was no “gym” for his mental health he could call home, he helped build one: HealHaus.
BY JOSHUA OCAMPONOV 5, 2020MARCUS V RICHARDSON
Boys don’t cry. Man up. Grow a pair. You’ve probably heard one (or all) of these at some point in your life. Maybe you’ve even said them—to yourself or to another person. That’s been the default for men several generations going: If something is bothering you, soldier on. The experience is worse for men of color, who face a cultural stigma surrounding things like self-care. Only one third of Black and Hispanic adult men in the U. S. who need mental-health care receive it.
That’s why Darian Hall, 39, cofounded the Brooklyn-based HealHaus, a revolutionary new community for men that’s at the forefront of changing perceptions surrounding mental health for people of color. Until the spring of 2016, he’d been working in medical-device sales for more than a decade. Although he was grateful for the job, ultimately the work was unfulfilling, and the sales quotas applied an ever-increasing load of pressure. “It plays on your psyche,” he says. “I didn’t want to determine my worth and success based upon hitting a certain number.” So instead of soldiering on, he did the opposite. He quit.
He didn’t know it then, but that simple act of surrender would lay the foundation for HealHaus. And then a string of events brought him to another place uncharted: his past.
Once he left his job in May 2016, Hall, who had always wanted to travel, booked a one-way ticket to Paris. He spent the next six months in Europe, Japan, South America, and West Africa, traveling from place to place without an itinerary. “It was freeing,” he says. “But when I came back, I didn’t know what I wanted to do now that I had that taste of freedom.”
Darian Hall wanted to create a space unlike any other for people of color
When Hall returned home to New York that November, he was stuck. He had tried building an app with friends that would connect travelers with locals, but it didn’t get off the ground after months of development. He was also in the throes of the breakup of a six-year relationship. Both of these events left him feeling in a void.
This uncertainty about his future prompted unanswered questions about his past—like the whereabouts of his father. Until then, Hall knew little about his dad, not even his name. “I had never inquired about who my father was. I had normalized the fact that I didn’t know anything about him,” he says.
Hall talked to his mom, who provided enough information for him to do an Internet search. That search led him to message his father on Facebook. Then, in July 2017, the two met. Hall found out he had half siblings. During the meeting, his father’s wife shared with Hall a photo of him as a kid that his father had kept. And when Hall posted to Instagram about meeting his father, along with the photo of them standing side by side, his comments section blew up.
His fraternity brothers from college, also Black men, shared their own experiences with their families, relationships, and fatherhood. “They were being vulnerable about different things for the first time with me because I was being real about meeting my dad,” he says. “These conversations led me to question why we didn’t have spaces that incorporated therapy in a way that’s inviting. The idea was keeping me up at night.”
Shortly after Hall’s meeting with his father, he had a conversation with his friend Elisa Shankle. As a practicing yogi, she was used to the lack of diverse practitioners in her classes. Something clicked for Hall, who had been going to yoga classes, meditation classes, and therapy clinics. “None of it resonated with me because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”
So a few weeks later, Hall and Shankle hatched a plan: They’d establish a wellness studio for people of color to come together and heal. “We were going to create something that no one else had done,” Hall says. “There was no blueprint.”
But there was a conscious shift taking place for men, and men of color specifically, he says. “You have LeBron James partnering with a meditation app, Jay-Z rapping about therapy. Guys are starting to have these conversations that are needed and realizing that not talking about them hasn’t served us in the past.”
A HealHaus yoga class.
A 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association found that young people, and Gen Zers in particular, seek therapy and other treatment for their mental health significantly more than Gen Xers and baby boomers. And now there are plenty of new, digital resources that promise to meet every mental-health need—virtual psychiatrists, meditation apps, online group therapy. Hall wanted to make these kinds of resources equally accessible for men of color.
After months of recruiting diverse teachers from the New York City area, in May 2018 they launched the studio, HealHaus, in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. The studio offers your standard wellness fare, like yoga and meditation classes, but also more tailored workshops on subjects like breathwork, as well as men’s wellness circles. Hall says that while HealHaus is open to all, people of color finally have a space of their own. “That first week we opened, I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “But after our first couple of classes, I knew we had tapped into something special, because we had guys meditating for the first time.”
Hall wanted to meet the needs of men of color as much as he could. Amid the pandemic and in the wake of the recent murders of Black Americans, including George Floyd, he began hosting virtual healing sessions for men of color to share their experiences as minorities, with a life coach and a therapist helping to facilitate the sessions with Hall. Hundreds of men signed up.
Now they’re hosting monthly sessions and other workshops for men, like mindfulness classes. Following one recent healing session, Hall recalls receiving a direct message on Instagram from a participant who said he finally felt like part of a community. “I get messages like that all the time,” he says. “It’s not lost on me the work that we’re doing, because for any guy to open up about his life, it’s a big deal. We’re not conditioned to be like that most of the time. It’s humbling.”