Who holds the hand of a black man if not himself?
May 2021 is mental health awareness month. As a writer, mental health consumer, and mental health advocate, I need to speak up to inspire someone to make a positive change in their life.
While the black community is vast and nuances of our life experiences cannot be fully captured or qualified, millions of Black men’s mental health in America, as a social group, have suffered throughout the years in total silence, with racism and social injustice being the culprit.
I am not someone who labels every injustice as anti-blackness (perhaps naively so). I admittedly brush off bigotry in others as personal flaws and tend to be more concerned with my goals than a pressing need to change an online opinion.
Still, the long term byproducts of racism has impacted the livelihood of black men and everyone has feedback except for black men ourselves — so today I will use my author platform and black male voice to shed light on what we face and how we can become better.
Many people are aware of the challenges of maintaining financials and basic health needs, but mental suffering for the black man has been instigated and heightened by conversations and negative images surrounding our blackness. Because of this, mental health challenges parade throughout our black male community undiagnosed and untreated.
Some of the mental challenges are identifiable, but many challenges lurk in the shadows of our lives until they pop up as severe physical health issues.
There is tremendous pressure to bear the mental strain of continuous beat down while also holding a job, maintaining a family unit, and seeking a strong sense of life purpose. Many of us don’t get the chance to seek purpose or noodle around with creativity and exploration because we can’t see past the next water bill.
Additionally, society demands that we remain ‘productive,’ which often requires us to overlook or at least depersonalize societal discourse surrounding our identity as black men.
But how do we depersonalize?
How do we do depersonalize if no one is showing us how and all we are being shown is our inadequacy and death?
The lack of discourse surrounding black men’s mental health with accompanying trauma porn videos and images creates the perfect cocktail for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the black male psyche. With stress comes heart attacks and strokes. Heart attacks and strokes are preventable and for that reason alone, this discussion is important.
Let’s explore some of the unique traumatic exposure that the black man processes daily and how we can take control of our own health needs.
Types of racial PSTD That Influence Our Identity
· Trauma porn videos (shootings, beatings) and images in media of black brutality
· Post-traumatic slave syndrome (the constant revisiting of slavery days and narratives and its inflicted mental imprisonment)
· Unresolved generational traumas unique to individual family narratives
· Microagressions in daily discourse
“Scientists can say with confidence that racism is bad for Black mental health,” shared Rheeda Walker.
A true man recognizes the importance of mental wellness, which will put him in the driver’s seat of his life. While it’s easy for me to write that statement now, I did not believe in the idea of counseling or self-empowerment for most of my life. I cannot say that my black father or the other men in my family modeled mental health and wellness.
I was the typical man in many aspects just five years ago. I believed a strenuous workout could release emotional pressure or a good night’s rest was all I needed to do to feel better.
While that was partially true, it does not address the years of negative stories and images I digested. I did not understand that healing and growth had to be sought until I was triggered to find mental relief after my father’s death.
While my dad was a brilliant man who believed in rest, he did not directly speak about anxiety and depression. I did not realize that anxiety and depression doesn’t always look like someone being “outwardly fearful” or “outwardly sad.”
A lot of the anxiety and depression I experienced was masked, and no one would ever know. I did not even know I was experiencing something problematic. And I can’t say that I would have been confident sharing. Even as I write this article, I always wonder if vulnerability is truly the correct answer or ammo for a future blow.
Like millions of black men, I grew up in a rigid religious environment that upheld hypermasculinity through the guise of biblical expectations of men, which was reinforced in daily life. Reinforcement from all areas — school to cookouts to TV to stories of the past.
I can count on one hand how many times I had seen my dad cry or express deep sadness. The personal and social adversity that did pop up were met with the need to “have more faith” or “pray about it,” ultimately suppressing the emotions.
It isn’t easy to discuss my perception of black man’s mental health needs without observing how I was conditioned culturally. This includes the impact of church, the impact of entertainment, and the formation of ego and relationship expectations with women and other men.
STIGMA IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
The main upheld character trait of a black man in society is to dismiss his emotional state and be perceived as ‘tough’ at all times.
Some learn this toughness trait from our fathers — some learn this from our friend groups.
Some get this message from sports and entertainers — some learn it from our mothers. Yes, our mothers can promote hyper-masculinity.
The need to be seen as “tough” has inflicted many wounds. Society must understand, including the black community, that some men are not naturally tough. Expecting us to perform masculinity kills us slowly from the inside out and just may be a primary source of the onset of unidentified stress that develops into anxiety and depression. I believe this programming is a result of America’s racism.
The need to be seen as ‘tough’ in society results from shallow stigmas that suggest that seeking mental health therapy is for ‘girls.’ This stigma also indicates that emotional expression and sensitivity reflect one’s true sexuality, which parallels the idea, in some circles, that there is an agenda to feminize black men by showcasing less masculine images and effeminate male media personalities. One study showed that 63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness.
There is only so much stress our psyche can bear before our heart or other organs explode, and no one seems to care, including those in our community. It was a long, expensive road to unlearn all of these messages I received from my family and community to get on a path of healing. But it does not have to be if identified early.
Other mental health barriers include:
- Inadequate access to care
- Receipt of poor-quality care
- Low availability of care
- The stigma associated with the specific mental illness
Additionally, black women are less concerned with the stigma surrounding seeking help than black men.
In 2018, 50% of African Americans and Blacks with severe mental health issues did not receive mental health care due to cultural stigmas and indifference, including the discussion of their illness with friends and family.
I have a family member who may reveal these stats to be true. This family has been diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenic disorder and refuses to get assistance, often referring to their condition as a spiritual issue.
The refusal to get assistance stems from 1) not trusting the medical professionals to diagnose and prescribe correctly — fear of being zombified from improper medicine and 2) ego, thinking their condition can be healed through candles and incense.
During the flair-ups of psychosis and mania, this family member projects and concocts stories that are not connected. The stories don’t make sense and trigger a defensive response and anger in other family members, putting their mental health at risk. Stigma and hesitation are enormous barriers for people seeking assistance and can have a detrimental effect on families.
Other Americans don’t battle with a racial identity crisis due to slavery days in the past because many of their families were instrumental leaders and continue to be recognized and hailed for it today. In terms of generational wealth and access to systems, white people have fewer barriers to seek help and are less impacted stigmas that exist in the black community from white supremacy. This is a cold reality that exists, but this reality is not possible for the highest version of mental peace and freedom we can experience if we seek it out!
HOW DO WE PRIORITIZE MENTAL HEALTH TO GIVE BLACK MEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO ACCESS MENTAL PEACE?
While the odds are stacked against the black man, several things can be done immediately (on a grassroots level) to shift the conversation and make progress. The black community will advance when there is a magnified and strategic approach to:
1. Breaking down stigma / Establishing psychological openness
Black Stigmas will gradually decrease, and psychological openness achieved when black people stop squinting or closing their eyes at the mental illness statistics of the black community.
We should use negative statistics to inspire positive action. There needs to be a more concerted effort to address, highlight, emphasize, and present facts about the black mind by the US HHS Office of Minority Health, American Psychiatric Association, Journal of Counseling & Development, and J Gen Intern Med:
More likely to attempt suicide: Black/African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent). LGBTQ black teens at increased risk of suicide attempts.
Higher prevalence: Adult Black/African Americans are 20% more likely to report severe psychological distress than white adults
Microaggressions and mental health: Higher frequencies of racial microaggressions negatively predict mental health. Racial microaggressions are significantly correlated with depression and insecurity around racial identity.
Disparities in care quality: African Americans often receive a more inferior quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care. Compared with the general population, African Americans are less likely to be offered either evidence-based medication therapy or psychotherapy.
2. Identifying what works and does not work for people individually
A bulk approach to taking care of mental health matters never proves to be beneficial. Everyone needs to be heard and addressed according to their needs.
It’s critical to drive awareness of issues and let people discover their “how” and “what” in order for their life to become better. We cannot drive awareness without acknowledging how black people are at increased risk of exposure to PTSD simply from living in this country and consuming media.
Speaking to a therapist is like talking to any person, and it takes time to build and establish trust. Relationships require a commitment to make, and not every therapist is the best match — just like any relationship.
3. Culturally Competent Counselors
The mental health access gap present within the black community will close when each black individual speaks up about their mental issues and demands accountability from health care professionals. Mental health stigmas will start to dissipate the more people feel supported and empowered to share their stories without feeling judged or at risk for lesser quality care.
This approach will help boost the data collection process and bring light to the specific addresses in need of mental health. Health Care Personnel also need to embrace cultural-racial competence better and hire practitioners who can speak to their client’s needs with a high level of competence and affirmation.
· For example, poor black men will have different cultural needs than rich black men. The American Psychiatric Association found that “People living below poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those living over 2x the poverty level.”
· A black man who is immobile and can only move in a wheel chair will have different needs than an able-bodied black man.
· Straight black men have different cultural needs than bisexual, gay, or transgender black men.
· Muslim African Americans will have different cultural needs than Christian African Americans.
· A single black father will have different challenges than a married black father.
Regardless of our cultural backgrounds as black men, it is of utmost importance to congregate around the idea of making health care access easy for all of us. We must agree as a group that we cannot access progress if we oppress each other and one subgroup feels invisible. We cannot ask for love if we hate each other.
Our individual differences should not be a barrier for other members to get the help they need and deserve. Everyone’s wellness is the priority.
By accepting that we all have unique plights, we can hold each other accountable for our wellness. If someone is not willing to lift themselves up or take care of themselves, at least we know they were given the opportunity and information.
But, first, we must acknowledge that there is still issue — yes after decades of our ancestors marching and protesting. We must be honest about our mental health challenges that we accept as normal in the community.
It is pertinent that a man steers his life in a mentally healthy direction which will encourage coping mechanisms to deal with racism which will then transcend his family.
Langston Hughes once said that “when a man starts out to build a world, He starts first with himself.”
Resources for Black Men’s Mental Health Needs
Therapy for Black Men
Black Men Heal
Brother You’re on My Mind
LGBTQ Psychotherapists of Color Directory
Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM)
Black and African American Communities and Mental Health
Bridging the Black Mental Health Access Gap
Racial Disparities Lead to Poor Mental Health Care for Black Americans