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As an African-American man who once suffered with extreme clinical depression, it was bad enough that I had such crippling self-loathing and utter disdain about myself, but I was bombarded by such negative images of black men that it only increased my self-hatred. Even today, black men are portrayed in a negative light; we’re dishonest, ignorant, violent, and ill-mannered. In short, we’re the bad guys. In all honesty, we’ve done quite a lot to maintain this negative image due to an “I’ve got the name, I might as well play the game” mentality. If society and even our own families and friends have come to expect us to be disrespectful to women and people of other races and cultures, expects us to be ne’er-do-wells, expects us to behave like rejects, then let’s give them what they want, right? This in itself is enough for another subject, but what does all this mean for those of us who still possess a poor self-image? For many, it could mean life or death, usually with death coming out on top.
It’s been estimated by experts at the Department of Mental Health that at least seven percent of African-American men will develop depression at some point in their lives and this includes men over forty-five, but only two percent of those men will seek treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s also estimated that suicide is the third largest killer of young African-American men between the ages of 15 and 24; more frightening still is that the same Center for Disease Control says this increase in African-American suicide now includes youths between ages ten and fourteen.
In general, according to health care experts, women of all ethnic and racial groups are far more likely to seek help for mental and emotional health issues than men, though black women are least likely to seek help than other women. Men live with a cultural concept handed down from history that “real men” should be more than capable of handling the challenges of daily life. “Boys don’t cry” is a credo that’s been with men for thousands of years and even in this so-called more “liberated” age, millions of men are still holding fast to an obsolete idea, putting themselves through needless torture because of an outdated mode of thinking that’s killing men in particular, and African-American especially.
There are many myths surrounding African-American culture and one of these is because of slavery, that we should be used to suffering. But what many people fail to realize is that whether you’re the son of former slaves or of former Nazi prisoners, suffering doesn’t need a specific reason to exist – human suffering is as alive today as it was back then. African slaves not only suffered physical torment, but mental torment as well. Today, while physical torment still exists, this at least does have physical solutions which can be treated almost immediately. Mental and emotional torment is still alive and well, too, but solutions for them are far more complicated. This idea that we should be accustomed to pain leads to another myth that “real men” deny their troubles and instead must always hide behind a mask of defiance and bravado. To survive in what they’ve been taught is a hostile world, they are convinced that they must respond in kind, and that any display of vulnerability (e.g., gentleness, kindness, compassion) will be seen as weakness, and consequently they’ll be taken advantage of or, worse still, laughed at by their peers.
To be sure, you can’t always show sensitivity, particularly in a situation where a more forceful attitude is required, but to go into every situation as if you’re expecting to find and engage an enemy will quickly, and very often does, work against you, driving you into even deeper realms of despair, depression, and anger.
Dealing with the mental and emotional issues of African-American men is extremely complex, different in all the ways that matter as compared to men of other races and cultural backgrounds. It should also be noted that access to mental health facilities plays a large role. The large majority of African-American men suffering from any illness just don’t have the financial resources to obtain the kind of help they need – even if they want help. Thankfully, more and more mental institutions are providing these men with affordable assistance and using myself as an example of an African-American man who was once diagnosed with a severe emotional illness (I was told early on in my treatment that mine was more emotional than mental), these places such as Edelman Mental Health Wellness Center in Los Angeles, California work incredibly well.
The real problem is encouraging men to seek help when they find that just admitting that they may have an illness is too humiliating to contemplate. Because of this fear, too many of my brothers will use drugs and alcohol to put a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, or they’ll engage in reckless behavior such as crime in order to prove to everyone, themselves included, that they’re too “big and bad” to pay attention to their inner turmoil. It takes monumental courage and strength to recognize that you may be the source of your unhappiness. And it takes almost superhuman courage and strength to seek help. I’m nothing special, but I did come to a point where I grew tired of being tired and chose life over death, happiness over depression, and my own personal joy over other people’s opinions of me. That last one is especially important in gaining or regaining good mental/emotional health. I wish I could tell you it’s easy – it took me eighteen years to learn how to love and accept myself (and I do not say this arrogantly) – but I can tell you that it’s possible.
My next article will provide a few more key issues African-American men with mental and emotional issues have to contend with compared to our Caucasian counterparts. It’s my hope that it will offer a little more insight into ourselves as men, no matter your race, cultural background or level of mental and emotional functioning. I also hope to shed some light on new perspectives especially for the various therapists, psychologists and other health care professionals who might be reading this article from someone who’s PhD wasn’t earned in a classroom, but was earned from life experience. Until then, may all the paths you take lead to joy, love and prosperity.
John Chavis writes a column about the racial and cultural aspects of mental illness for Painted Brain News