The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
On-screen, Boris Kodjoe is saving lives as a firefighter on the ABC action-drama Station 19. Off-screen, he's hoping to do the same by amplifying a new Men's Health Awareness Month campaign highlighting the risks of prostate cancer, particularly for Black men like him, who are 75 percent more likely to be diagnosed with the disease and twice as likely to die from it.
In a video interview with Yahoo Life, the Austrian-born actor stresses the importance of looking after one's physical and mental health. In terms of the former, he's partnering with Depend and the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) for the return of the Stand Strong for Men's Health initiative to destigmatize male incontinence and offer support to those being treated for prostate cancer; Depend will donate up to $350,000 to the cause.
Kodjoe calls the cause a "very personal" one, as he saw a close friend and mentor undergo his own battle with prostate cancer.
"It reminded me that I needed to take care of myself," he says. "And the first step to do that is to talk about health issues, to talk about everything that concerns us — spiritual, mental and physical health — to be vulnerable, to be open and not to consider it as a weakness to talk about these things. And as Black men, we are facing a lot of things every single day. There's a lot of weight on our shoulders, but in order to take care of others, we've got to take care of ourselves first."
The Soul Food actor hopes the initiative and breakthrough in cancer research will help draw attention and find solutions to the racial disparities present in access to quality health care. He also wants to spark conversations about other pressing health issues within the Black community, including obesity and the mental strain brought upon by the pandemic and social justice unrest.
Now 48 and a father of two — he and his actress wife Nicole Ari Parker share a daughter and son — Kodjoe is prioritizing his own health needs as he gets older.
"I'm getting to an age now where I'm the guy now holding the phone six feet away from my face so I can read what's on the screen," he jokes. "It's undeniable that we're all getting older and so we need just those constants... I'm the first one to admit that I didn't do a great job always taking care of myself. I have a family and they depend on me, so I need to do that."
That includes looking after his mental headspace, too.
"I practice what I preach and I take time every single day to just be with myself, whether it's my morning prayer, meditation or laying down and stretching in my trailer when I have five or 10 minutes between shots," he says. "There's stuff that you can do that's pretty simple to include in your daily routine that you could turn into a habit. And it's important because we have so many habits that are detrimental to our health. We need to balance that out with habits that are actually good for ourselves — whether it's mental health, spiritual health or our physical health — that will ensure that we're here for a longer time."
The Real Husbands of Hollywood star — who will soon make his directorial debut with the Lifetime movie Safe Space, in which he stars opposite his wife — says that his work can also be "therapeutic."
"It's a creative outlet," he says. "It's a way for me to represent who I am, to represent us [the Black community] in the most multi-dimensional way possible. Historically we've been sort of portrayed in one-dimensional ways. And I think that every role we take on, we try to make sure that you represent our culture in a way that shows how multi-dimensional we are. It's an outlet that I'm really grateful to have."
While that work is rewarding, Kodjoe is careful to maintain what he calls a "work-life list of priorities," with his family at the top.
"You have to figure out how to juggle it all," he says. "And again, your mental health is a huge part of it. And I think as Black people, we sometimes ignore that because we're in survival mode, oftentimes; a lot of us are in fight-or-flight most days, dealing with so many things that it causes severe exhaustion on a daily basis. And we have to make a point of finding the time to be there for ourselves, even if it's just for five minutes."
Kodjoe credits his German mother, a psychologist, with helping him to "understand mental health." As for the other leading lady in his life, Parker, he's previously shared about how therapy has helped keep their relationship strong and unpack their respective issues.
"I think relationships are constant work and effort," he says of his marriage to the And Just Like That... actress. "You're going to get out of it what you put in. And we are two individuals that are flawed, and two individuals who have dealt with childhood traumas just like anybody else. In the past two years especially I've found that spending time on that actually represents an opportunity for us to be better today and in the future. So I had to dig deep and go back in time to when I was 8 years old, to figure out how, for instance, my father leaving impacted me and what kind of patterns resulted from that and how as an adult I have coped or have not coped and what that means for me and my relationship. So I had to be accountable. I had to take responsibility. I had to, again, go back and explore and figure out what that meant. And putting effort into yourself first and then the relationship, in addition to refusing to ever give up, is a recipe that can give you enough to maximize your potential as a couple."
Putting in the work as a husband and father of two teens is what brings him "fulfillment," Kodjoe tells Yahoo Life.
"What brings me joy is taking care of myself, and therefore being a better father, being a better husband, a better man," he says. "At the end of the day, all we have is our relationships. All we have is he love that we experienced, the love that we give, the connections that we forged, things we learned from other people. Those are the things that really matter, I think, in life and as long as we can honor that and engage and learn, the better it is."
—Video produced by Stacy Jackman.
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