For National Prevention Week, the annual health observance dedicated to increasing public awareness of, and action around, mental health starting May 10, international educator Dr. Daniel Jean investigates why Black men have been denied mental wellness and unveils paths toward change.
Soul Train’s Don Cornelius. DJ/dancer Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss. Hip-hop mogul Darrel Steven "Chris" Lighty. DJ and social media personality Etika (Desmond Amofah). Trombonist J.J. Johnson and so many others, dead by suicide. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other mental challenges run rampant in our community. Many Black males and those who are male identifying have been suffering in silence.
The historical and repeated denial of our human rights has fueled our anguish, thus impacting our overall well-being. Many forms of racism and discrimination, including the public execution of Black men by law enforcement, daily micro-aggressions and policy and practices that have kept some Black men in a permanent underclass state have led to untreated and, in some cases, undetected trauma. Hypermasculinity norms are staples within our community that are reinforced in mainstream media and music, along with passed-down gender-conformative tropes, such as “real men don’t cry,” “sensitivity is not allowed,” and “never ask for help.” The system has been built to make the Black man internalize his anger and anguish until it explodes, often resulting in self-harm.
The Causes Behind Mental Oppression
The Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress, with some of the highest rates being reported among men. According to a study conducted by the office in 2018, the death rate from suicide for Black or African-American men was four times greater than for African-American women. In recent years, self-reported suicide attempts for Black adolescents rose by 73 percent, with Black boys being more likely to attempt suicide than Black girls. Additionally, Black boys are twice as likely to die by suicide than their white counterparts.
A Black man’s multiple “identities” of age, education level, economic status, justice status, and orientation all play a role in determining his level of safety, awareness, and acceptance to engage in mental wellness. Jean Semelfort, a licensed professional counselor, believes, “Black male mental wellness opposes what we've learned Black masculinity to be. Vulnerability, and the way we discuss it at times, can literally be life or death. In addition, while conversations around mental wellness for Black males have increased, the availability of Black male therapists has not changed in a manner to provide those seeking therapy accessible options.”
Licensed mental health counselor Dave Cazeau shares, “The primary issue in promoting Black men's mental wellness is getting past the stigma of needing emotional support. There is a sense for most men that being emotionally vulnerable is akin to being weak or dependent, thoughts that can impede a man’s ability to show up openly and honestly in relationships or when seeking therapy.”
A Positive Path for Change
The good news is that Black male therapists on the frontlines have seen slight improvements. Semelfort shares, “Reception to ideas around mental health has increased among Black males. In my work alone, I've witnessed Black males utilize words like ‘trauma,’ ‘trigger’ and ‘defense mechanism’ to describe their experiences. Black males are now willing to sit down and talk about their experiences with the desire to unpack and process it, which is major.”
Associate Professor and author, Dr. Michael Hannon, is seeing an increase in Black mental health professionals present where Black people live, work, and play. “We are seeing Black male business and community leaders like barbers, pastors, ministers and imams openly endorsing the importance of our mental health and wellness,” he says. “They are opening their doors for programs and conversations in partnership with mental health professionals. It's literally an endorsement from some of our most valued community leaders. They are promoting the importance of making time and space for honest conversations about the things that help–and stand in the way of–mental health and wellness as broadly as possible.”
Military veteran Saintil Jean shared, “These days, Black men are more expressive of the things they are dealing with on a daily basis. It might not be with a professional but with a friend, family, neighbor…anybody to vent to 'off the record.’"
Former New York State superintendent Alexandreena Dixon, who has witnessed firsthand the devastating correlation between untreated mental trauma and prison sentences, advises that changes must start on the homefront. “Black men have been taught to not cry, oftentimes by their parents or guardians,” she declares. “We must let young Black men know that it’s ok to explore and express their feelings.”
Black men being taught to suppress their emotions will only reinforce the cycle of trauma. We, as a community, must work collectively to improve the mental wellness of our Black men and the attention on wellness must begin at an early age. To quote Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to raise strong children than to fix broken men."
My Personal Journey to Mental Wellness
I suffered the loss of my father at the tender age of 13. What followed was seven days of family visits, the wake, funeral, and repasts. A week after his death, I was back in school with no thought or access to therapy or counseling. I was expected to go on, business as usual. Unfortunately, my untreated trauma of loss led to bad decisions, unhealthy relationships, and a lack of overall self-awareness.
My personal experience with practicing intentional mental wellness did not surface until my college years. I was introduced to therapy and over time, adopted it as a weekly practice.
My lifelong journey toward mental wellness afforded me the opportunity to incorporate self-care into my daily routine. Eating healthy foods, cultivating positive and nurturing relationships, and engaging in intentional decision-making without mind-numbing coping mechanisms have become life mantras. For me, it’s elevation over entertainment and creation over consumption.
Unfortunately, many Black men are not afforded an opportunity to be treated and receive “help.” Prisons and graves are filled with Black men who never received the mental support they needed.
Tips for Black Men to Improve Their Mental Well-Being
Rap pioneer and legend Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC shared in an interview that therapy and rehab helped him overcome depression, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation. The fame and fortune could not mask the pain he was experiencing inside. Black men can no longer suffer alone.
Here are a few practical tips to address the dangerous cycle of untreated mental anguish among Black men and boys. Recognizing the symptoms of mental anguish is key. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to:
- feelings of deep sadness
- Disorganized thinking and/or reduced ability to concentrate
- Excessive levels of fear and/or worry
- Extreme mood shifts and/or inappropriate behavior
- Withdrawal from activities
- Significant tiredness, low energy, or problems sleeping
Incorporating healthy daily habits such as meditation, hydration, good sleep and hygiene, consistent exercise, and a healthy diet are all practices that support mental wellness, in addition to limiting mindless screen activity and cultivating empowered family communication.
It can be helpful to engage in talk therapy with a licensed practitioner and/or trusted loved one or seek resources, such as Cry Like a Man: Fighting for Freedom from Emotional Incarceration and Battle Cry: Waging and Winning the War Within by mental health advocate Jason Wilson and Breathe: A Guided Healing Journal for Black Men by Brennan Allan Steele.
Dr. Daniel Jean is an international educator, consultant, playwright, and poet @Wordstravel