Mental health concerns are among the biggest and most dangerously tabooed topics in Black America. A comedian once said that the only mental condition in the Black community was “a nervous breakdown”. This speaks to the millions of Blacks in the shadows suffering alone, managing the weight of the world in silent bent knee prayer. Perhaps if we ignore it for long enough or fail to name it, it will magically disappear.
One of Black America’s most tabooed topics recently re-entered our consciousness, our Twitter feeds and our Facebook timelines. Lee Thompson Young, best known as Disney’s “Jett Jackson” and a current TNT leading man, was found dead in his home from a self inflicted gun-shot wound. Black social media was buzzing with demands for mental health awareness, touting this level of intimacy with psychology that felt diametrically opposed to what the realities of Black mental health show.
Although Black suicide has historically been low when compared to other groups, don’t be fooled. From 1981-1994, Black suicide rates grew by a ghastly 83%. Today suicide is the third leading cause of death among young African American men. In 2010, over 80% of all Black suicides were males. Women of most all ethnicities attempt suicide at a higher rate than men, yet men complete the task at a higher rate; a stomach pump does nothing for a gun-shot wound to the head. Black women are less likely than any other American demographic to commit suicide.
By all accounts, Young, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., was a likeable star on his way to being actualized as a true Hollywood talent. With all this he still chooses this fatal act of intra-personal aggression. Given the consistent vilification of Black men and the existential emasculation associated with vulnerability, might there be an inherent self-destructive mechanism by which we operate? We must understand that participation in counseling is not synonymous with weakness. It’s clear that a very naked discussion on mental health is long overdue. Who will lead this charge in a community where these issues remain cloaked in invisibility?
Research has indicated that familiarity with professional counseling services plays a huge role in whether one will actually make an appointment with a mental health professional6. Blacks under utilize mental health services across all socio-demographic domains5 and are dying silently as a result. Statistically, Blacks are disproportionately impacted by risk factors and experiences that increase psychic stress, hopelessness and trauma; factors that all contribute to suicidality.
Why do so many of us still refuse to get help? We are well represented in the barbershops and beauty salons on Friday, in the nightclubs on Saturday and at church on Sunday…yet our presence in the therapy room remains nil. Do we believe that we can style, party and pray ourselves to mental wellness? I do see psychic value in a fresh haircut, a strong social support system and sturdy spiritual foundation. I do, however, have a problem with our community’s practice of praying ‘demons’ out of people plagued by schizophrenia, or beating the defiance out of a boy suffering from undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.
Many strong and resilient qualities exist throughout Black communities. The natural selection of those Africans who survived colonialism and the Middle Passage left a gene pool worth note. We cannot leave our legacy to untended psychological injuries. Access to mental health services has improved in most communities and is often offered at low to no cost. Our culture sanctions the rejection of this rich experience, limiting our exposure to its value.
We must make an intentional and strategic shift, opening dialogue about our mental health and unique wellness needs. We must demand that the psychological community offer culturally congruent services and train culturally competent clinicians. Families must acknowledge that Aunt Sally suffered from major depression, she did not just have a nervous breakdown. Adjudicating bodies must see that Johnny suffered from PTSD and was not just an incorrigible kid on drugs. If we are serious about positively impacting suicide, fatherlessness, incarceration, misogyny and illiteracy among Blacks, we must act now. As I pray for Lee Thompson Young’s family, I also pray that the Black community discontinues its sole reliance on prayer as a scapegoat to confronting real life issues. We must learn to tolerate the anxiety associated with vulnerability and not run.
Dr. Donald E. Grant, Jr. is a professional psychologist and the Executive Director of Mindful Training Solutions. Follow him on Twitter: @DrGrantJr