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Painted Brain | The Bright Black Light (the Other Color Of Depression, Part Two)
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • July 13, 2015

The Bright Black Light (The Other Color of Depression, part two)

There is little doubt that African-American men in particular have their own unique approach to things a society dominated by media regard as acceptable to “male behavior” and one of these is a misguided machismo that has caused much needless mental and emotional torment to men in general. But in the case of African-American men, there are in fact several other important factors that we face. The following is by no means a complete list of those things but you will find that these are the most typical no matter the demographics.

Cultural Misidentification. Among African-Americans, there is a cultural belief that certain things only affect certain people. In the African-American community, it’s not uncommon to hear blacks refer to particular situations as “something only white folks get” and depression and mental illness falls into this category. This is acceptable as not only truth, but as proof. But this is a myth based on fact: white men – indeed, most men of other races – are far more likely to admit and seek treatment for mental/emotional issues while a large majority of black men will choose to suffer in silence. Depression is also considered by African-Americans that something only homosexual men experience, that such unfortunate men are struggling to come out of the closet, so to speak, and by unfortunate I mean to say that it’s unfortunate that a paralyzing fear of social rejection keeps these men from being true to themselves. This assumption poses an even more dangerous element than the “something only white folks get” because of the false element of shame accompanied with this. From my own experience (because of my gentler approach to life and a certain amount of shyness and respect around attractive women, I’ve been misidentified as being gay even though I’m not), the accusation of being gay can be harmful to both straight and gay men, especially when coupled with the outdated thinking about what a “real man” should be.

Religious beliefs. Many African-Americans, the large majority of whom have been raised in extremely religious (even superstitious) families, believe that not only can a mental illness be overcome by faith and prayer alone, but that it’s a clear sign of spiritual weakness to admit suffering from such an affliction. Worse still is the mistaken belief that a mental disorder – or any ailment – is either terrifying proof of demonic possession or divine punishment for some unconfessed sin. Next to cultural misidentification, this is one of the main factors that not only causes African-American males to avoid professional help because of a perceived blasphemy in seeking “man’s science” and not God’s forgiveness, but is too often the deciding factor in male black suicide.

Accessibility and affordability. Though it was mentioned in my earlier article, it bears repeating that this plays a role – an important role – in whether or not African-American men seek help. The large majority of African-American men fall below the poverty line, and even if they wanted help, more often than not they don’t have the financial resources to pursue it. The consequences of this have millions of African-Americans self-medicating with alcohol, illegal drugs, and reckless behavior resulting in incarceration, with little or no possibility of receiving the help they so desperately need. Often, it is just a death sentence.

In an online document entitled “Breaking The Taboo of Depression Among African-American Men” which was posted in Mental Health and tagged African-American depression on May 12, 2014, it was made extremely clear that blaming everything on an excess of machismo and old-fashion attitudes grossly oversimplifies this complex issue and I strongly agree with this. This tag went on to express another important point which I feel must be strongly emphasized, maybe even more so than all of the other issues surrounding mental and emotional issues with black men, that is, a total lack of trust in the health care community as a whole. Whether true are not, blacks of both sexes simply don’t believe that the mental health profession – indeed, all forms of medical provisions – are not really interested in their well-being. Racism in this country may be a lot less subtle in this day and age, but it’s still alive and well, and if that’s the case, then it would only stand the reason that it is even still alive and well even in the medical profession. Many African-Americans point to the dastardly Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in African-American men living in Alabama. The participants were told they were receiving free health services from the U.S. government. These poor unfortunates were never told they had been purposely infected and were never treated for it. The only thing they received were rudimentary medical check-ups, some meals, and to add insult to injury, were given free burial insurance for participating in the study. During this 40-year study, it’s impossible to say how many men, women and children died as result of this until a whistleblower’s revelation of this insidious crime was made public in 1972.

It’s impossible to right the wrongs of the past, and the aftershocks of this unethical experiment led to the development of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, along with a formal apology by former president Bill Clinton which did very little to win over the confidence of the thousands of African-Americans who lost loved ones to this infamous study. But it’s such things and many others which have led not just blacks, but many people in general to harbor mistrust even to those institutes that would certainly make amends and do want to help.
Today, in the field of mental health, whites dominate the psychiatric profession and according to experts, only two percent of licensed mental health professionals are African-American, with three-fourths of these being women. On a psychological level, many people feel comfortable speaking about their inner-most feelings and secrets to someone who resembles them and can at least in a small way identify with their cultural background. The shortage of male African-American therapists is too great to be ignored. In my opinion, the few African-American students pursuing careers in this field should be strongly encouraged in this but young black males in particular should be given added incentives to pursue careers in this field where an understanding of the cultural background is far more desirable than a PhD.

Mine was a long journey through the darkness – a darkness that stole thirty-five years of my life. But darkness must eventually give way to light and if you pursue that light you will find it. Pastor Joel Osteen said it best when he said that sometimes, you’ve got to go through it, to get to it. Problems, whatever they are, never come to stay – they come to pass and although it took me eighteen years of therapy to learn this, learn it I did, and it’s a credo that serves me well even to this day, a constant reminder that we were created to be “victors,” not victims.

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift from God, which is why we call it the present.” – Bil Keane, Cartoonist

John Chavis is a staff correspondent who often writes about racial issues for Painted Brain News.

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