Suffering behind the mask: Black Men and Mental Health

Author’s note: I am not a psychologist/psychiatrist but I’ve experienced anxiety attacks and depression during times in my life.  Most of us have. Many black men suffer in silence perhaps not knowing that they may have mental health issues.  Many stand behind the mask…suffering.  This column is dedicated to them.  

An often-overlooked problem in the black community is the health and well-being of black men.  Many are faced with health concerns, economic challenges, biased legal systems, underserving educational systems, racism, death at the hands of those from within and outside of their communities, etc. Many of these issues cut across economic, educational, and social standing. Those that are well off as well as those that get by day-to-day struggle with mental health.  The results of these issues spill over into relationships with mates, families, and communities.

That’s not to say that men of other races don’t have their share of mental health problems but there are certain issues that lend themselves only to black men.  We certainly cannot ignore the plight of black women whose issues are many.  In fact, much of what afflicts black women stem from the challenges faced by black men.

All of this weighs heavily on black men which tend to negatively affect their mental well-being.

Jor-El Caraballo, a NYC based Talkspace therapist, writer, and mental health advocate wrote a column called “Why Black Men Face Greater Mental Health Challenges” which states,

“Many men have not been told how to process and talk about their emotional experiences, furthering a sense of isolation, anger, and resentment. For these men, this creates an emotional volatility that can sometimes manifest in seeming “shut down” in relationships and friendships. At its worst, this budding resentment can manifest in outward expression of anger, aggression, and even violence.” 

Caraballo continues with,

“Many men (arguably most) struggle with the idea of being openly vulnerable and sharing their emotions. And for those who grew up as sensitive boys, they are often subject to ridicule and shaming for what are natural and healthy expressions of emotion. Black men face a unique challenge in that most of what is most prized about them may be their looks or bodies, but rarely ever their intellect and emotional intelligence. These things are often deemed too soft for any Black man to experience, delivering the message that if you are those things then you must change…and fast.”

Scope of the Problem

Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, Inc., whose primary mission is to provide and promote a holistic, culturally relevant approach to the development and maintenance of optimal mental health for African Americans and other people of color produced a fact sheet, “Souls of Black Men” which present these sobering statistics:

  • 7% of African American men will develop depression during their lifetime-this is likely to be an underestimate due to lack of screening and treatment services.
  • African American men have death rates that are at least twice as high as those for women for suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, and homicide.
  • From 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate for African American male youth (ages 15-19) increased by 146%. Among African American males aged 15-19 years, firearms were used in 72% of suicides, while strangulation was used in 20% of suicides.
  • For African American men, especially in urban areas, the abuse of alcohol and its consequences appear graver when compared to statistics for white men, white women or African American women.

Compound that with the following:

  • African Americans account for approximately 12% of the population, but they account for only 2% of psychiatrists, 2% of psychologists and 4% of social workers.
  • Only 1/3 of all Americans with a mental disorder get care. The percent of African Americans receiving care is half that of non-Hispanic Whites.
  • African Americans are less likely to be treated with medications, especially newer medications that have lesser side effects, than Whites. When they do receive medications, they often receive higher dosages leading to more severe side effects.
  • The burden of mental disorders, specifically depression costs $43 billion annually. Absenteeism and lost productivity in the work place cost $23 billion per year.
  • When mental disorders aren’t treated, African American men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide and suicide.

They go on to state, “The cost of mental disorders extends beyond the individual to his family, community and ultimately society. With appropriate outreach and treatment, these financial and non-financial costs are avoidable.”

This is not only a crisis in the United States. The following video, “Why are black men more likely to suffer psychotic disorders?” paints a stark picture of what black men go through in Great Britain.

How can we as black men address this?  The first step is to look in the mirror and acknowledge there is a problem.  Second, is to seek help. Take that step to contact a therapist that you may feel comfortable with. (For me it was the same as selecting a doctor, I wanted a black male therapist, someone who may be able to relate to my experiences)

A Path Forward

What can we do as a community?  The Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, Inc. suggest the following:

  • African American men must make community, state and federal officials aware of their unique mental health issues (e.g. barriers to mental health services) by participating and testifying at public hearings, demanding support from public health agencies and writing to their elected officials and media.
  • Community-based prevention efforts targeted towards reducing destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse, must be supported.
  • Institutional and individual racism must be recognized and addressed.
  • Policies that bring about social justice and promote equity and equality must be supported and enforced to allow African American men (and indeed all individuals) the opportunity to fully care for themselves and their families.
  • Increase the representation of people of color in the fields of suicidology and epidemiology in order to develop more effective interventions.
  • Strengthen the evaluation of mental health promotion projects for appropriateness, impact and effectiveness.
  • Give more attention to the expression of mental disorders in African American men in order to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and treat these symptoms.
  • Support mentoring initiatives that offer young men, social support, high self-esteem and employment/educational opportunities.
  • Fund research to increase our understanding of suicidal behavior among young African American men to develop a more comprehensive profile of those at high risk for early intervention.

There are also those that are addressing it at the local/community level as shown in Janice Gassam’s column “How This Barber Uses His Shop To Improve Black Men’s Mental Health” where Eric “Kleankut” Dixon, a celebrity barber and mental health advocate uses his barbershop as an outlet for Black men within the community. Dixon said,

“For someone to come to a barber and allow the barber to cut them, there’s a trust factor that you’re already building with your barber. Then, once you build that trust…it’s a place where men go where they can actually be free and take out their stress…whether it’s from a job, home, family…being able to go somewhere and really unwind…learn from others and even be the one to give knowledge to other people. I’m having a conversation and trying to figure out how can we help and make therapy more accessible and more affordable as well…there’s Therapy for Black Men…there’s [also] therapy via the web where you can talk to a Black therapist in other states. I know a few folks who do therapy sessions over the computer…what I want to do is get a group of therapists who are interested in creating something that is more accessible and affordable for people.”

Many conversations to determine what black men need eventually turn to what black men really want.

Corey Shaw in his Op-ed piece, What Every Man Deserves, for writes:

“A good man never expects his loved ones to deal with pain or stress alone, but he deserves someone on his side when he is going through the same. And if you think it’s all about cheerleading and motivation, it’s not. There are serious things in life and sometimes, even the strongest men need someone they can comfortably talk to. Men can also get lonely and they deserve someone who understands them. A good man never expects people to read his mind, but when serious discussions turn into fights or insults, he chooses silence. After all, he is a man and no matter what you say, men and women are different. A man wears different hats just like women do. He deserves to be seen as a man. It’s important because relationships and roles make it hard for an individual to grow. A father, husband, brother or son, he can play many roles, but as an individual, he also has his own interests, dreams, beliefs, and personality which should not be snatched away from him. He deserves the support that he needs for his mental and spiritual growth.  Interestingly, most of the people during different phases of life tell men who should be their priority. First, it’s parents, then wife, then children and so on. Men deserve to be heard and feel appreciated. And it’s not just about self-love, he deserves the same (if not more) amount of love, care and affection that he gives while playing those respective roles in the family. No man is perfect, no woman has it all, but these are the rights every man can expect his loved ones to meet. Trust, loyalty, time, and love are not a privilege, they are natural expectations as long as they are given unconditionally.

Jor-El Caraballo profoundly states,

“It doesn’t make a man weak to acknowledge the fears he has about providing for his family, or the anxieties he has about existing in a world in which Black bodies are devalued…it’s simply realistic. We can work through these fears and worries by talking with other men, whether they are friends, fathers, siblings, therapists, or soon to be new friends in group therapy or other supportive spaces. These are spaces where we can heal. They just require a bit of risk to take advantage of them. On the other side of that risk is less anxiety, less depression, and less stress overall.”

Mental health of black men.

What’s Next?

So, men I ask you, how many of you can relate? I know I can. Are you willing to have this conversation? Are you ready to seek help? Are you willing to provide it? The discussion starts with you.

Feel free to leave a comment below on your thoughts, experiences, and advice.


Don E. Lang, Jr.

You can follow Don’s Daily Planet on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

4 thoughts on “Suffering behind the mask: Black Men and Mental Health

  1. This is on point and very informative. Black men need to hear from other black men as much as possible.

  2. This is a great read. This topic is perfect for this time in our lives. Thanks for bring light to a subject that has been hard to discuss. Bravo! 👏👏👏

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