Lenard McKelvey aka Charlamagne Tha God is a household name in American media. Host of “The Breakfast Club,” international and national best-selling author, and late night tv show host are some of the many accolades he has gathered over the years.
Born and bred in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Charlamagne is known for his tongue-in-cheek style of entertainment and his ability to unnerve the industry’s most popular and powerful. While success has been at his doorstep ever since he began hosting hip hop’s most successful radio show, Charlamagne has recently undergone a metamorphosis.
The past few years have seen him publicly acknowledge his mental health issues. He has voiced his experience with therapy, his traumatic childhood experiences, and how vulnerability helped reveal his authentic self. While Charlamagne has battled with anxiety his entire life, it wasn’t until recently that he began accessing the tools to deal with it.
Talking to Jay Shetty on his podcast, ‘On Purpose,’ he said, “I believe positive energy activates constant elevation”. A line that he lives by – Charlamagne credits it for enabling him to rise above the violence and trauma of his surroundings and become what he is today.
The media mogul found his calling back in 1998 when an interview landed him an internship at Charleston radio station, z93 Jamz. With a foot in the door, the young black man from South Carolina worked his way to becoming second mic to the legendary Wendy Williams. A few years later, Power 105.1’s new morning show ‘The Breakfast Club’ launched and shot Charlamagne to stardom. The syndicated radio show which was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame has amassed Charlamagne a mega following.
While success was something he became familiar with, Charlamagne’s idea of success began to change with his deteriorating mental health. No matter how many awards he won, the debilitating panic attacks remained. While he had been diagnosed with anxiety several years before, he had never believed it needed any professional treatment. Charlamagne recalled, “I didn’t realize anxiety was a mental health disorder before I started going to therapy”. “I started going to therapy when I was 38, 39 years old. Can you imagine thinking you had it all together? Thinking you knew exactly what was going on in the world and then you start sitting down with a therapist and realizing you don’t know ****?”
Charlamagne credits therapy for providing him with the right tools to unpack his life, unlearn and then relearn what truly served him. Using therapy to uncover traumatic events from his childhood, his need to be accepted, and the hostile environment he grew up in was essential. He slowly began to discover why his body was reacting the way it was and what it needed to begin healing.
In 2018, Charlamagne, who already had a NYT best-selling book, Black Privilege, released his second book, Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me. His greatest display of vulnerability, the book chronicled his lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. A raw and personal account, he used the opportunity to outline his blueprint for breaking free from fear and anxiety and succeeding in life.
While the release of the book was met with widespread acclaim, it also led to a shocking revelation. Charlamagne’s father confessed that he had also been dealing with mental health issues his entire life – at times taking 10-12 different medications. “I was like damn, I was dealing with anxiety my whole life. I was dealing with bouts of depression. If he would have told me back then, I would have had the tools, much much earlier,” said Charlamagne.
Ever since his journey towards healing began, Charlamagne has realized the difficulties Black Americans face in accessing mental health care. While major disparities exist in access to health care for Black communities, there are also a lot of stigmas related to mental illness. People who have struggled for decades against systemic racism, oppression, and state violence also fear being ostracized if labelled with mental illnesses.
With a growing understanding of the complexity of the problem, Charlamagne began using his star power to create awareness and enable people to access treatment. “When you got a certain platform and that platform is to a certain level, you are here to deliver a certain message,” he said. “My purpose is serving other people”.
Inspired by the work of organizations such as ‘Black Men Heal’, Charlamagne established the Mental Wealth Alliance in 2021. The initiative aims to raise awareness on the importance of mental health, destigmatize mental illness, and provide accessible resources for those seeking help. The alliance also provides a platform for individuals to share their stories and experiences, as well as connect with mental health professionals and resources.
“We want to provide free therapy services to more than 10 million Black Americans over the next five years. And, we plan to do that through raising money”, he said. “We want to train the next generation of psychiatrists [and] therapists, we want to be able to provide them with scholarships and money to where they can get their certification, especially Black and brown people.”
Charlamagne has regularly used his platform to promote the work of the alliance and to encourage others to prioritize their mental well-being. For World Mental Health Day, the MWA organized a full-day event called the Mental Wealth Expo. The event aimed to provide mental health and healing education, featuring notable speakers such as Charlamagne, Dr. Alfiee, and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child. The expo also included breakout rooms with mental health specialists offering guidance on various mental health topics.
Recognizing his service to the Black community, the Radio Hall of Fame inductee received the distinguished Emma L. Bowen Humanitarian Medal, during a gala in his honor in New York City, in November 2022.
“The Humanitarian Medal recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to individuals and communities with the same passion and zeal as our late founder,” said Patricia C. Jordan, Board Chair for the Emma L. Bowen Community Service Center. “We are delighted to be honoring Charlamagne, who like Mrs. Bowen, has dedicated himself to helping individuals, especially those in the Black community, face the stigma surrounding mental health illness so they can effectively and productively overcome their challenges.”