Mental health and the African American male


Cullen H. Davis, Staff Columnist

According to the New York Times, “16 percent of African Americans reported having mental illness or symptoms in 2019.” That is equivalent to 7 million in the United States alone, more than the population of Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia combined. So, where does this come from and why is it so high?

The umbrella of this trend in poor mental health has been linked and characterized by trauma and violence, but many fail to realize this as the cause. Historical dehumanization, oppression, and violence has evolved into present day racism, both structural and individual. Adversity with slavery, sharecropping and race-based exclusion from health, education, social and economic resources has translated to socioeconomic disportion by African Americans today. These struggles and burdens are passed down genetically and plant a seed of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem for the next generations. Socioeconomics disportion is also linked to mental health; impoverished homeless, incarcerated and substance abused citizens are just some that are at higher risks for poor mental health.

With this problem being so high and prominent, why has it not been addressed? Why has numbers seem to increase in recent years? The answer, the negative stigma of mental health is still actively pervasive in our society and community.

On one hand, we have the issue and miseducation of mental health in our black communities and households. According to studies from John Hopkins, “63 percent of African Americans believe mental health is a sign of weakness.” This horrid mindset is the biggest deterrent for those seeking mental health care or support. For years, men have been taught since young ages that being sensitive is soft and ridicule them for showing emotion. The saying, “Be tough as nails” or “Stop acting like a girl” are examples of common language and ideologies that encourage this. Being taught to fight and use aggression instead of comfort and calmness.

Many African-American men have not been told how to process and talk about emotional experiences like past trauma, relationships, assault or abuse either. This furthers the common issues we see that are directly linked to poor mental health; isolation, anger, and resentment. These actions create emotional volatility that manifest into “shutting down” in relationships and friendships and outward expression of anger, aggression, even violence. Outward expression to children, spouses, friends and siblings often leads to further mental health attacks to the victim, spreading like a wildfire in our families and communities.

On the other hand, African Americans have a struggle against the medical system. African Americans have been, and continue to be, negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in health care systems with known examples like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and labor and delivery care. Conscious and unconscious bias from providers and lack of cultural competence lead to distrust in mental health professionals, prevention of seeking treatment and misdiagnosis. To further add to this stigma, the issue of how expensive mental care acts as a deterrent enough.

So, where do we go from here? Our community must become educated on this topic. This newfound education and knowledge on the importance of it must change the attitude and mind self in efforts to offer support and prevent the genetic seeds of mental illness from continuing to the next generation. Efforts have already been made to combat the notion that mental illness is a sign of weakness. High-profile celebrities like Kanye West, Dak Prescott, Kevin Love and Kid Cudi have come out to acknowledge their own struggles with mental health in hopes to influence others to take care of theirs. However, it is up to our families, communities and society to change the narrative and offer support to an illness that has been rapid for over 400 years for our race, fathers, brothers, and sons.