How Emile Ennis Jr. works out both body and mind to combat depression

How Emile Ennis Jr. works out both body and mind to combat depression

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Emile Ennis Jr.
Emile Ennis Jr. Photo by Robyn Von Swank

Emile Ennis Jr. and AJ Gibson had planned the perfect wedding in Playa Mujeres, Mexico, with a rooftop ceremony, lush gardens for the cocktail hour, and a beachside reception.

But on June 22, 2022, Mother Nature had other plans, forcing the couple and their guests inside, causing Ennis to draw upon his years of self-care to keep the unexpected storm in perspective. 

A decade earlier, Ennis had found true love in AJ, who he had met when they were hired to co-host a show on AfterBuzz TV. After coming out publicly, Ennis began to rebuild the relationship with his religious parents (his father was a United Methodist pastor for 47 years) and acknowledge the mental health challenge that had haunted him nearly his entire life: depression. 

A tropical storm — even on his wedding day — wasn’t going to bring him down.

In suffering from depression, Ennis isn’t alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, LGBTQ+ adults are three times as likely to have mental health conditions compared to heterosexual adults.

And despite the fact that most people with depression can fully recover with treatment, only about one-third of those with severe depression seek assistance from a healthcare professional.

“Like with any identity, feeling different—or worse, unaccepted as you are—is a significant risk factor for mental health struggles,” says Anna Docherty, Ph.D., LP, assistant professor of psychiatry at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “Most of us experience some significant anxiety or depression in our lifetimes, and we often manage this with social support. Without adequate social support and acceptance, mental health is quite difficult to maintain.”

chatted with Ennis, 33, from his Los Angeles home, where he works as a content creator and TV host, about growing up gay in the South, his experience with depression, and the daily actions that help him maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

Ennis recently partnered with Depression Looks Like Me, a campaign aimed at normalizing the conversation about depression in the LGBTQ+ community through storytelling and the amplification of lived experiences to empower people to seek the mental health care they may need.

What was it like growing up a pastor’s son in Atlanta? 

It was an interesting childhood because I was deeply ingrained in religion and the church. I knew from a very young age that I was gay, maybe I didn’t know the exact label for it, but I knew I was different than some of the other kids. When I started figuring it out, I realized I could either live the way I was “supposed” to live and be unhappy or live my truth and find that freedom. And I struggled with finding that freedom for so long. I didn’t come out until I moved to Los Angeles — almost a year and a half later. 

I grew up in the church, where I started to hear about homosexuality, going to hell, and all these different things. It was a constant internal battle, and I struggled with the perceived right and wrong. I often felt like I didn’t have anybody to talk to about those things, especially in the Bible Belt. It was a beautiful childhood, but it could be difficult a lot of times just because I couldn’t truly be myself.

Emile Ennis Jr. as a child
“I didn’t know the exact label for it, but I knew I was different than some of the other kids,” says Emile Ennis Jr. of his childhood in Atlanta, Georgia. Photos provided by Emile Ennis Jr.

In what ways did you feel you couldn’t be yourself?

When you’re younger — assuming you’re straight — there might be a girl you start talking to or find attractive, or maybe you don’t even know what to call it. I was that way but with guys. Everything I was being taught told me this wasn’t right, and I didn’t know how to make that go away. So I tried to pray the gay away. Throughout college, I thought about how I walked and dressed, like all these things. So when we talk about Pride and coming out, it’s so important for me to be an advocate online and expressive in my relationship with who I am because I know how damaging it can be to the psyche to have to suppress so many things. 

I remember in college at Reinhardt University, my freshman year, I was walking down the hallway in my dormitory, and some of the basketball players were standing outside on the balcony. I saw my resident advisor look over, and he was talking to the rest of the group, and they were saying something to the effect of, you know, “He’s gay.” And I remember going back to my room and crying, thinking, “I’m trying so hard.” I’m wearing baggy clothing, adjusting my voice, hanging out with guys — everything I’m supposed to do to be straight. How are they still figuring out that I’m gay? 

I think it’s important to acknowledge that being LGBTQ+ doesn’t make us depressed, but there are social factors that can impact our experiences navigating the world more challenging. 

That is a unique challenge of being part of this community. I am happy and proud to be a Black queer man in a loving relationship. And I feel loved and accepted by so many people. But on the flip side, I’m also aware and reminded on the daily that we are not accepted everywhere. So often, people say, just ignore the haters and focus on the love and light. That’s easier said than done. Part of what I do is content creation. And when I post on social media, there’s beauty in just being exactly who I am. And when people see somebody similar to them, they see hope. But we also get hateful messages, which is disheartening. 

So while being part of the LGBTQ+ community is not a cause of depression, when you wake up, and you see that another law has been passed or another bill has been put into place that’s attacking our community for just being who we are, that can weigh heavy on a daily basis. And that’s something I don’t think anybody should have to deal with.

Emile Ennis Jr.
“When I post on social media, there’s beauty in just being exactly who I am,” says Ennis. “And when people see somebody similar to them, they see hope.” Photo by Robyn Von Swank

How has your husband, AJ, been a champion, particularly regarding your mental health? 

Communication is key, but many people don’t understand what that means in a relationship. Specifically for us, I mean full transparency. That helped us grow and create this bond of trust where I feel like I can open up and express anything and everything. We have created a safe space where nothing is off limits, where I can say exactly what I’m feeling and going through without judgment.

Early in the relationship, we discovered that we were both dealing with depression and found a commonality as we navigated it together. It can be difficult on days when we are both dealing with it at the same time, but that’s something that we’ve worked through over the entirety of our relationship. Sometimes I don’t need him to do anything specific. Or I just need space or food. Sometimes, there’s not anything he can do — it’s me reaching out to one of my friends. Sometimes it’s just having that safe space, which is why having a program like Depression Looks Like Me is great, which provides resources to have those open and honest conversations without judgment or shame. 

It can feel overwhelming to take those steps toward self-care. What are some of your tools for mental resets that are attainable and don’t feel like you’re putting too much pressure on yourself?

I meditate and journal, but my primary go-tos are working out and listening to music. I sometimes work out for three or four hours, and my husband is like, “What were you doing?” It’s my zen space. If you see me at the gym, I’m usually not talking to anybody — it’s just me, the weights, and the music, and there’s something so special about that. When I work out, I’m releasing energy and stress. And music can be such a powerful way to alleviate what you’re feeling. Sometimes I’ll turn on Adele, and I just want to cry with it, or maybe I’ll listen to high-energy, upbeat pop. As someone who grew up in a religious background, I also listen to gospel music, and it’s a beautiful thing because that’s still a part of who I am. 

And although I don’t do this as often as I’d like, just being out in nature, near the water, or sitting in the grass, just reflecting and realizing that all these external circumstances — all these feelings that we have — are valid, but reconnecting with the earth and recognizing that we’re all just little particles moving around really does help.

Emile Ennis Jr.
“It’s my zen space,” says Ennis of his gym time. “There’s something so special about that. When I work out, I’m releasing energy and stress.” Photo by Robyn Von Swank

What’s your message to someone who is struggling with depression?

You are not alone. So many people in this world try to make us feel less than who we are because they aren’t comfortable with being who they are. There are resources and people out there who can help you. You are loved. You are seen. And you have nothing to be ashamed of. We need to get rid of the stigma around depression and the feeling that people have to hide it and not talk about it. 

I had the most beautiful wedding in Mexico and just got back from a gorgeous honeymoon. People can look at my social media and my life and say, “Oh, everything’s going so great. He’s so happy.” I still deal with depression. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If we just all became more transparent by talking about what we’re dealing with, we can help each other and feel better together.

* * *

Depression is an illness like any other. Access to information and resources is the first step toward seeking help. Healthcare and provider directories, LGBTQ+ community centers, mental health, suicide hotlines, resources specifically for our BIPOC and trans communities, and campaigns like Depression Looks Like Me can empower those in need. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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