Like many black men, I grew up with an abusive father who viewed displays of emotion as a sign of weakness. Long after becoming a father, if I was overcome with sadness or depression, I would hide my tears from my young son.
mental health : Opinion
Eventually, I realized that I had to break the cycle of oppression. After becoming a parent and thinking about how I grew up, I was inspired to handle my emotions differently so that my son wouldn’t be embarrassed to show his emotions.
Now my younger son knows that men are allowed to cry and that difficult feelings can be expressed and overcome. I hope this helps protect his mental health as he gets older, but as a black American male, unless things change dramatically, I fear he will face a unique set of challenges.
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day, observed on October 10, is “Mental Health is a Universal Human Right.” I want me and my fellow black American men to claim this right for ourselves, our families, our communities and our society.
According to a survey conducted last year, in the United States, 1 in 5 adults experience mental health problems each year and 9 in 10 adults believe our country is now in the grip of a mental health crisis. Millions of American men suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, and are far less likely than women to seek help.
Men are almost four times more likely to die by suicide than women. White men are the most likely to take their own lives, but from 2014 to 2019, the death rate by suicide among blacks increased by the largest percentage of any racial group – a 30% increase. Putting Men at Special Risk Men are more vulnerable to suicide
Black children ages 5 to 12 are also at greater risk: They are twice as likely to die by suicide as their white peers. And the suicide rate among black boys between the ages of 10 and 19 has increased 60% in the last two decades, which I believe is a national crisis.
As shocking as all these statistics are, I don’t need statistics to tell me that something very alarming is happening with black men and their mental health. I can see it all around me, including me.
Having struggled with depression my entire life, I recently found myself at a new low after experiencing a series of traumas. Those dead loved ones include two black men who tragically took their own lives. By trying to be strong for others instead of acknowledging my need to heal my pain, I made myself sicker. In desperation, I sought professional help—and was finally able to get it.
I have the privilege of knowing a successful, high-functioning black man who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD), a complex mental health condition. Men like him are often referred to as ‘angry black men’ instead of receiving proper diagnosis and treatment.
A combination of negative factors leads Black people to experience mental health problems, making us especially reluctant to seek treatment when we are unwell. It’s the fact that even when we admit we need help, we still face disproportionate barriers to accessing good quality, appropriate mental health care.
Often our struggles are rooted in racial trauma, which can be traced back to both historical experiences such as slavery and ongoing racial discrimination. My father wasn’t the only one with strict behavior – hiding his feelings from me and my siblings, withdrawing completely whenever he was angry, sad or upset – as a coping mechanism. Because of oppression and marginalization, many black people develop an invisibility cloak in the false belief that if you don’t feel emotions yourself – or at least don’t appear vulnerable – the myriad of personal and systemic racism goes away. A daily brush with cruelty can’t hurt you.
Very traditional gender roles persist in the black community, shaming men who express their vulnerability as fragile. And if you’re born into a culture that promotes hypermasculinity, you risk developing toxic attitudes and behaviors that can exacerbate problems like depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse, further isolating you. It turns out that our collective coping mechanisms are exacerbating the damage we’re doing.
Yet, for many Black men, recognizing that they need mental health help is the first step in a long journey to wellness. The first obstacle they must overcome is an internal one—a deep distrust of health services stemming from historical medical abuse and modern discrimination in health care.
External obstacles for black people also come at a faster pace. And when treatment is provided, it is rarely done by physicians equipped to meet the specific needs of Black men. The dearth of black mental health specialists in America – only 5% of psychologists are black – makes it extremely difficult for us to receive truly culturally competent care.
In an advanced economy like America’s, it is inexcusable that racial injustice robs a significant demographic group of their right to good mental health. We have to fix this, and we can.
Black men must work together in our community to bring awareness, important messages about mental health to places where men gather, such as places of worship, sporting events – even barbershops. Even at the shop. I draw inspiration from America’s Confess Project, a national initiative that promotes emotional wellness in the Black community, and which has trained over 3,000 Black barbers and beauticians to act as mental health advocates.
Government can also play a role. The US needs a national public health campaign targeting black men, an expansion of Medicaid to reduce disparities in access to care, and more mental health practitioners trained in race- and gender-sensitive treatment, supported by the good work of organizations like Black Mantle. Depends on the job. Health Connection.
We have a moral responsibility to commit to achieving racial equality, but we must also remember the numerous practical benefits of doing so. Improved mental health for black men is one of these, but it will undoubtedly benefit the country as a whole, because when men’s distress is ignored, their ability to contribute fully as citizens is severely hindered.
If you are the father of a black son, don’t be afraid to cry in front of him. Let’s consider this our gift to America – to give a new generation of black people the courage to share how they feel and the power to ask for help.
And if you are struggling or have ever struggled, find another person – black or white, trans, gay or straight, poor or rich – and please tell them about your mental health challenges. Don’t put on a brave face. Be really honest. Then ask him how he’s doing and – whatever his answer – give him a hug.