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Opinion: Why we should all care about Black men’s mental health

Opinion by Keith Magee

(CNN) — Like many Black men, I grew up with a stern father who saw displays of emotion as a sign of weakness. For a long time after becoming a father myself, if overwhelmed by unhappiness or frustration, I would hide my own tears from my little boy.

Eventually, I realized I had to break the cycle of repression. Becoming a parent and thinking through how I was parented led me to handle my emotions differently, so that my son wouldn’t feel ashamed to show his.

Now my young son knows that men are allowed to cry and that difficult feelings can be expressed and overcome. I hope this will help protect his mental health when he’s older, but as a Black American male, unless things change dramatically, I fear he will encounter a unique set of challenges.

The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day observed on October 10 is “Mental health is a universal human right.” I want myself and my fellow Black American men to claim this right, for the sake of ourselves, our families, our communities and our society.

In the United States, 1 in 5 adults experience mental health difficulties each year, and 9 out of 10 adults believe our nation is now in the throes of a mental health crisis, according to a survey taken last year. Millions of American men suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, and are far less likely than women to seek help.

Men are nearly four times as likely as women to die by suicide. White men are the group most likely to take their own lives, but from 2014 to 2019, Black people had the largest percentage increase of any ethnic group in suicide death rates – a rise of 30% – putting Black males at particular risk given the greater proclivity towards suicide among men.

Black children between the ages of 5 to 12 are also at higher risk: They are twice as likely to die by suicide as their White peers. And there has been a 60% increase over the past two decades in suicide rates among Black boys between the ages of 10 and 19, which I believe constitutes a national emergency.

As shocking as all these figures are, I don’t need statistics to tell me there’s something very worrying going on with Black men and their mental health. I can see it all around, including in myself.

Having wrestled with depression my whole life, I recently found myself at a new low after experiencing a series of bereavements. Among those departed loved ones are two Black men who tragically took their own lives. By trying to stay strong for others instead of acknowledging my own need to process my grief, I made myself sick. In desperation, I sought — and was eventually able to get — professional support.

I am privileged to know a successful, high-functioning Black man who lives with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a complex mental health condition. Men like him are often labeled the ‘angry Black man’ rather than being properly diagnosed and treated.

A mix of negative factors expose Black men to mental health difficulties while making us particularly reluctant to seek treatment when we become unwell. This is compounded by the fact that even when we do accept we need help, we face disproportionate barriers to accessing good quality, appropriate mental health care.

Often our struggles are rooted in racial trauma that can be traced back to both historical experiences, such as slavery and ongoing racial discrimination. My father was not alone in acting tough — hiding his emotions from me and my siblings, removing himself completely whenever he felt angry, sad or upset — as a coping mechanism. Oppression and marginalization leads many Black people to grow an invisible shell in the mistaken belief that if you don’t allow yourself to have feelings — or at least don’t appear to be vulnerable — daily brushes with the myriad brutalities of individual and systemic racism can’t hurt you.

Highly traditional gender roles persist in the Black community, stigmatizing men who express vulnerability as shamefully fragile. And if you’re born into a culture that promotes hypermasculinity, you are in danger of developing toxic attitudes and behaviors that can exacerbate issues like depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder and substance abuse, leaving you even more isolated. Our collective coping mechanism, it turns out, is just adding to the harms inflicted on us.

Yet, for many Black men, recognizing that they need mental health support is only the first step on a long journey to wellness. The first hurdle they must overcome is an internal one — a deep-rooted distrust of health services, stemming from historical medical mistreatment and modern-day discrimination in health care.

External hurdles also come at Black men hard and fast. And when treatment is provided, it is rarely by practitioners equipped to meet Black men’s specific needs. The shortage of Black mental health specialists in the US — only 5% of psychologists are Black — makes it extremely hard for us to access truly culturally competent care.

In an advanced economy like the US, it is simply unforgivable that racial injustice robs a significant demographic group of their right to good mental health. We must fix this, and we can.

Black men should work together to increase awareness within our community, taking vital messages about mental health to key spaces where men gather, such as places of worship, sporting events — even at the barber shop. I draw inspiration from the Confess Project of America, a national initiative that fosters emotional wellness in the Black community, and that has trained more than 3,000 Black barbers and beauticians to act as mental health advocates.

Government can play a role too. The US needs national public health campaigns targeting Black men, the expansion of Medicaid to reduce disparities in access to care, and more mental health clinicians trained in gender- and race-sensitive treatment, building on the good work of organizations such as the Black Mental Health Alliance. 

We have an ethical obligation to commit to achieving racial equality, but we should also remember the countless practical advantages of doing so. Better mental health for Black men is just one of these, but it is one that will undoubtedly benefit the whole country, for when men’s distress is ignored, their ability to contribute fully as citizens is severely curtailed.

If you’re the father of a Black son, don’t be afraid to cry in front of him. Let that be our gift to America — empowering a new generation of Black men to have the courage to share their feelings and the strength to ask for help.

And if you are struggling or have ever struggled, find another man — Black or White, trans, gay or straight, impoverished or wealthy —  and please tell him about your mental health challenges. Don’t put on a brave face. Be really honest. Then ask him how he’s doing and —  whatever his reply — give him a hug.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 to connect with a trained counselor, or visit the 988 Lifeline website.

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