“There was no conversation around mental health,” Kelli Richardson Lawson recalls of her youth, growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. While she presently helps to facilitate conversations about mental wellness for the benefit of young people and parents alike through her organization and podcast, The SonRise Project, Lawson, like many Black men and women of earlier generations, grew up in a home where you didn’t talk about such things.
“I remember distinctly asking my mother one time about an aunt who was behaving differently at one point. And she said, ‘Oh, that’s just who she is. I don’t want to talk about it,'” she says. “And it was always that: ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ And that is true of, I think the Black community, because there’s such a stigma around not being okay.”
But not talking about it hasn’t done anything but left people to grapple with emotional struggles alone, or forced them to just try to bury such issues. Twice in her life, Lawson was able put on a happy face and do the latter. The first time was when she was in high school and was pushed to the edge by a violent boyfriend. “Something was about to snap,” she recalls. The second time, she had just had her first child and was experiencing postpartum depression.
“I was so unhappy and so depressed and had a really tough time breastfeeding and felt shame because people looked at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?'” she says. “For me it was deeply, emotionally draining and I knew something wasn’t right. But again, I never talked about it. I didn’t feel like I could share out loud that I was not this happy mom with this beautiful child and what a blessing it was to be able to even have a child. I kept thinking, What a blessing. Don’t complain. I didn’t pause to say, something’s not right here.”
But Lawson, a mother of two sons, finally had to pause and confront mental health when her then 16-year-old son, overwhelmed by expectations and wanting to leave behind a promising swimming career, attempted to take his life.
“All during ninth grade, he started to say he really didn’t want to swim anymore,” she says. “My husband and I we were like, ‘What are you talking about? You’ve been swimming since you were five years old.’ If your child doesn’t want to swim anymore, that’s perfectly fine. But we were not in that head space so we were like, ‘Boy, you better get your a– up and go to practice.'”
But practice was as early as 4 a.m. before school. And Lawson and her husband, admittedly “strict” in their parenting due to fear because of “the horrors of what happens to our children many days and our people in general,” pushed him to continue. He started to rebel, and as they punished him for his behavior, things took a turn for the worst.
“We didn’t see it coming,” she says. “At all.”
It was a turning point for their family, and for the way Lawson thought about and discussed mental health. She learned through the programs they had their son in after the incident to speak more calmly, to stop, listen and truly hear what her loved ones are saying; and to make sure her boys feel how much they’re unconditionally loved. She does a lot of breathing exercises to have conversations rather than confrontations with her eldest son, now 19. And most importantly, she’s letting him create his own path.
“I have allowed myself to just let him be,” she says, her son living in Atlanta while the family continues to reside in Maryland. “I’ve also allowed myself to really focus on my own self-care. So that’s what I focus on: communication, letting him be, and taking care of me really.”
The tools she’s learned have allowed her to be of support to other moms and young men and women who want to be heard. Back in 2020 when Lawson and her husband were visiting their son at a facility in Connecticut and sat in a group session with other parents, she realized they were the only Black ones in the room.
“I realized, we need a space like this for Black parents so we can share because it’s different being a Black parent in this world,” she says. “So I felt completely alone.”
It wasn’t until she became vulnerable with other Black parents she knew who would ask about her son that she realized she wasn’t alone at all.
“Sonrise Project was born out of this need. We needed a space where we could talk to each other as Black parents about our journey and our struggles and how it feels right now to be Black in America and try to help our children who are suffering, as we’re suffering.”
It started as a Zoom call, with Lawson hoping to also make it into a non-profit organization. The first call was February 23, 2020 and she committed to doing them every Sunday morning at 9 a.m., providing a safe space for Black parents and children.
“A friend who worked with Oprah Winfrey Network happened to be listening on one of the calls and she called me and she said, ‘More people need to hear this. It’s incredible,'” she says. “And so she said, ‘Would you be willing to talk to OWN about potentially making a podcast?'”
The Sonrise Project episodes continue to happen every Sunday, now through OWN, as a popular podcast. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and Lawson feels a sense of purpose helping parents and their children share their stories. She’s gone from once never talking about mental health to doing so every week.
“You don’t ever imagine with your children that you will be dealing with something like a mental wellness challenge or an addiction challenge or both. You can never imagine that when you look at these beautiful babies,” Lawson says. “But we all know God gives us what we can handle and also picks people, chooses people to deal with certain things and it’s all divine. I’m so clear on my purpose in this life right now, to help other parents heal the same way I’m working to heal and to heal our family and help other families.”