Breaking Down the Stigma: Mental Health in the Black Community A feature story that explores the stigma attached to mental health in the African-American male community.

Depression in the African-American Male Community.

African-American men were taught, either from their parents, peers, or from society in general, that the basis of black masculinity is pride and strength. Although these are important traits for anyone to have, they have been such a large part of the black male persona that it can work against them in cases where they may benefit from putting their pride aside and asking for help.

In an attempt to bring about awareness to an issue that is plaguing the African-American male community, I’ve interviewed licensed therapists and three African-American males about the experiences that they have had concerning their mental health.

Mental illness is a fairly uncommon topic within the African-American community, and it wasn’t until the public breakdowns of rappers Kid Cudi and Kanye West that people began paying attention to the effects of it. Although both rappers share the same audience, the way they addressed the public after their breakdowns were very different.

Kanye West kept quiet after he was hospitalized for exhaustion, but the story was immediately picked up by tabloids and media outlets. Terrence Chappell, a writer for Ebony Magazine even used West’s situation as inspiration for his article “Kanye West: How Being ‘Strong and Silent’ Hurts Black Men”. In the article Chappell writes “Kanye’s breakdown is a climax of what has probably been going on for years, perhaps before the public even knew him as ‘Kanye West.’ No one labeled Kanye West’s behavior as a marker of potential mental illness, because Black men aren’t given that benefit.”

Kid Cudi on the other hand, checked himself into rehabilitation and shared his thoughts on the matter with fans through a Facebook post.

In the post, Kid Cudi cites anxiety and depression as the conditions that have plagued him. “My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it. I can’t make new friends because of it. I don’t trust anyone because of it and I’m tired of being held back in my life. I deserve to have peace. I deserve to be happy and smiling. Why not me? I guess I give so much of myself to others I forgot that I need to show myself some love too. . .” he wrote.

Since then, media outlets such as The Huffington Post, Essence Magazine, The Root and Ebony Magazine have published articles on the topic. In a story published by the black online publication The Root, writer Johnathan Higgins cited shame, fear and judgement as the reasons why African-American men are reluctant to seek professional help for their mental illnesses. In the article titled “On Black Men and Mental Health”, Higgins shares his own experience with seeking professional help. “Many in my family told me to ‘man up’ and deal with my problems on my own. Others told me that I needed to stop taking things so personally and learn to maintain without the help of a professional counselor. When I did open up about seeing a counselor regularly, to my surprise, many of my peers shared that they, too, wanted to seek help, but feared being judged by other black family and friends.”

In “Black Men Are Giving Themselves a Space to Talk about Mental Health” an article published by The Huffington Post, writer Taryn Finley addressed Kid Cudi’s situation while bringing light to some of the issues that everyday African American males face when it comes to their mental health. “Despite being disproportionately affected by mental health conditions, black men in America have to deal with a lack of health care resources, a higher exposure to factors that can lead to developing a mental health condition, a lack of education about mental health and other factors that serve as barriers to getting proper help.”

When asked why he thought African-American men are less likely to receive treatment for their mental health, Therapist Andrew Ames from Savannah, Georgia backed Finley’s claim that African-American men have less health care resources. According to Ames, a lack of quality insurance is one of the biggest reasons why African-American males are less likely to receive counseling on their own dime.

Another interesting factor that was incorporated in Finley’s Huffington Post article was her reporting on a social media hashtag #YouGoodMan that came about because of what seems to be a lack of support within African-American friend groups.

Former therapist and current program specialist at the Administration for Children and Families in Washington, D.C. Kaliah Thomas mentioned the lack of support among African-American men. “Black males don’t really have a positive peer support group of friends that are saying ‘Hey man, are you alright? You know, just checking in and asking how you’re doing, making sure you’re good.’ Most men don’t really check with each other to make sure you’re okay they just, I don’t know. I don’t know what guys talk about when they’re together but it’s not their feelings.” The #YouGoodMan hashtag addresses this issue head on. “This is why black men on social media are taking the conversation Cudi started even further. After Twitter user @DaynaLNuckolls suggested to @TheCosby that there should be a hashtag for black men to have a space to discuss mental health. They came up with #YouGoodMan.” Finley writes.

The creation of this hashtag is one of the efforts that people have put in place to raise awareness about the unspoken challenges that African-American men face on a daily basis. So the question of the hour is, how did we get here? Are African-American boys being socialized or being treated differently than other boys?

Janaya Stanley, a clinical social worker in Baltimore County, Maryland works primarily with families within African-American communities and has a great amount of experience working with African-American boys. When asked why she thought it was that African-American males are the least likely to receive counseling, therapy or treatment for their mental health, she wondered if this could be the case because African-American boys were being treated for mental health issues at high rates. “There has been a trend where a lot of boys are put in treatment or given medication and things like that because their needs are a lot more than what the adults can handle,” she said. “So I’m wondering if because boys tend to be put in treatment over girls, is that the reason why they’re less likely to seek it as adults, because of the experience they have as children?”

Tyrone Thomas, a juvenile probation officer from Baltimore, Maryland also gave his opinion on the topic. When asked about the attitudes and behaviors that are indicators that he may need counseling or therapy are overcompensating (or hanging around the wrong crowd), being withdrawn, or masking their emotions. When asked what the outcome could be if children exhibiting these behaviors don’t receive counseling, Thomas said that those behaviors can continue into adulthood. “Kids that don’t get help turn into adults that don’t seek help. Over time they come up with their own remedies or things that they use to cope. It can be drugs, women, or they don’t let people get close to them. If you don’t address stuff early in life they won’t want to do it later. If they don’t go to counseling as kids, if you don’t get to it early they’re never going to want to go later in life. Basically you don’t talk about problems outside of the house, so a lot of them are following instructions from their parents not to talk and a lot of parents in the black family are embarrassed if someone says your child is messed up. They don’t want to have their kid going to treatment because it acknowledges that they messed up somehow. That’s the problem for a lot of people.” Thomas said.

One young man who has admitted to exhibiting some of the behaviors mentioned by Tyrone Thomas is Ephraim Michel.

Meet Ephraim.

Ephraim Michel is a 20-year-old social work student at Savannah State University, and upon meeting him, one wouldn’t assume that he is the serious social work student that he is. Wearing a chain with a ruby pendant with his arms, chest and neck decorated with tattoos, Michel began telling his story. “I’m an old soul. A lot of people look at me and wouldn’t expect me to be the type of person that I am”, he said. When describing one of his lowest moments, Michel mentioned experiencing similar behaviors to those mentioned by Tyrone Thomas such as masking and overcompensating. “I felt like I was just like the rest of my peers around me trying to fit in even though I never felt comfortable” he said. “I always felt like I was gifted and chosen for something greater but I felt like I wasn't living up to it. I was so lost what I usually find disturbing, I begun accepting it. I was doing things that was not of my character with drinking and smoking. Trying my best to hide away from my issues that was always in my face even though I tried to look over them.”

Michel is from what he calls one of the most violent neighborhoods in the country, West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “You have to make a name for yourself, you have to stand your ground. . . The moment they see weakness in you it’s like piranhas attacking.” The pressure to survive or “make a name for yourself” that Michel is referring to has been proven to have a significant effect on African-American young men according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Negro Education.

“Examining the Effects of Urban Neighborhoods on the Mental Health of Adolescent Males: A Qualitative Systematic Review” by Danielle Perry, Karen Tabb and Ruby Mendenhall from the University of Illinois explores the ways in which the culture of a neighborhood or environment can have effects on a person’s mental health. Perry, Tabb and Mendenhall said “Our results demonstrate that adolescent African American males living in neighborhoods with high exposure to violence and crime, unemployment, and concentrated poverty display higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, anger, and aggression.” Michel also cited societal pressure as one of the factors that contributed to his troubles. “It was definitely a lot of pressure and it did affect who I was because I wasn’t a gangster, I wasn’t this troubled kid, I was actually a sweetheart. That environment made me into a ruthless cold person which I didn’t realize until after I actually left Philadelphia. The environment had a lot to do with how I am now, who I am today.”

Michel, who came to Savannah State in the fall of 2014, made the decision to leave Savannah in February of 2016 after a roommate’s agreement went bad and he had no other choice but to turn to his family in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Michel’s decision to return wasn’t an unpopular one among college students. According to their article “Depression and Suicide Among Black Men in College” becoming depressed and financial and academic stress are factors that can contribute to a college aged lack man becoming depressed.

When asked how he was able to turn his life around Michel said, “My mother was a major influence who was there for me mentally. She pushed me to be great and to strive for the best even though I fell a few times, she said I could do it. Every day she encouraged me that everything was going to get better.”

Once Michel returned to Savannah State this March, he made a decision to take his education more seriously and use his story to inspire young men with a similar background to take their lives more seriously.

Michel mentioned being open to the idea of seeking counseling. “I thought about it because I felt at the time that I needed more than help to gain my life back and get it under control. I had a lot to talk about from a psychological standpoint but after speaking with my loved ones I realized that I had to make a personal decision to change first and that's what I did. Pretty much after that things started to look better” he said.

After being with family and having time to re-group, Michel returned to Savannah State with a new outlook on life and new goals in mind. “It was a difficult decision to make, coming back to school where things are so slow when you’re used to making $1,000 in 30 minutes.”, he said. When asked what he thought was the experience that influenced his decision to turn his life around, Ephraim cited religion as being the biggest factor, the key to his newfound inner peace.

Meet Steve.

Steve LaFrance, a 23-year-old Atlanta native who is originally from Miami, Florida has had his own experiences with both anxiety and symptoms of depression.

According to LaFrance he had an average, even “sheltered” childhood, but still struggled with anxiety. Although he believes he has now conquered the anxiety that had an effect on the way he socialized with others at one time, he recalls a more recent situation where some of his nervous feelings resurfaced. “I was with a friend and we went to a kickback and you know I came with him so I was meeting people and talking but I wasn’t interacting with people too much because I was nervous about saying stuff and feeling a lot of anxiety about the whole experience in itself so I was feeling really up and down at that time, I was feeling really introverted. So because I was acting like that after the party they told me I seemed shy or uninterested and that wasn’t the case but all of that overthinking made it seem that way” he said. LaFrance also says that while he doesn’t go out as much, he’s a lot more receptive to people and less “closed off”.

LaFrance, who recently launched a mobile thrifting boutique, says he is looking forward to using his networking skills to launch and expand his company and break into the fashion industry. When asked about his reaction to being part of such a competitive industry (with his past dealings with nervousness and anxiety), LaFrance said the thought of networking and meeting people does make him nervous but is more open to it. “I’m not over thinking it, when you think about it too much it doesn’t end well so now I’m just being positive and confident in myself and knowing what I want to do. I’m more open to meeting people because I know that’s one of the steps I need to take to better myself and my business.” he said.

LaFrance also cited some of the pressures from his family as having an effect on the way he viewed himself. Because he grew up being part of two families (his mother’s sides of the family), he was expected to be two completely different people. “My mom’s side of the family is more like go to college and major in this major in that and all these steps on how they want you to live your life and don’t be like the other guys, don’t be out here in the street. Then if you go to my dad’s side it’s like alright get out there. Everybody id in the street already or their not in school and it’s a whole different perspective. It’s basically two different sides. I don’t fit into either of those, I balance it out.”

Although LaFrance did take college courses he lost interest and decided to work his way through life to find his true passion. “I was just trying to make money any way I could. I had things that I wanted to pursue but I wasn’t actively pursuing them.” he said.

While in this transitional period, LaFrance began experiencing symptoms of depression while watching his peers graduate and start their careers while he was still trying to figure out what route to take. “A lot of people were asking me what my plan was and I didn’t have a plan. I was lying about it. . . There were times when I didn’t want to answer phone calls or talk to people because I didn’t want to seem so inactive.”

When asked if he was able to talk to his loved ones about “Sometimes I don’t tell people my problems because I don’t want them to worry about me. I take pride in myself being able to get out of my own situations. I don’t want to seem like I’m not self-sufficient.”

LaFrance’s decision to keep his fears and troubles to himself aren’t unique to only him and his situation. As mentioned earlier, strength and pride are both important aspects of African-American manhood, and Jordan Harris, an Air Force mechanic has views similar to those of LaFrance.

Meet Jordan.

Jordan Harris, a 24-year-old College Park, Georgia native spends most of his day working out in the gym and doing maintenance on B-1 Bomber planes for the United States Air Force. Since joining the Air Force Harris has been stationed in Abilene Texas at Dyess Air Force Base, but has been deployed to Guam since February of this year.

Harris grew up in a two parent household with two older brothers and one younger sister. Before joining the Air Force he lived in the same home for his entire life and his hobbies include working on cars, planes, or anything with an engine and working out.

Although Harris says most of his daily stress comes from trouble on the job, he did have one experience that working out in the gym couldn’t solve; instead he sought counseling.

“At the time me and a girlfriend were going through some problems and I had to see things from a different point of view. That kind of helped the relationship and it helped me see things a different way.” he said. According to Harris he had six counseling sessions and although he was hesitant to see a counselor, he ultimately thinks it worked out for the better. Harris attributed his willingness to open up to his counselor being an African-American male, despite there being very little representation of African-American males in the mental health or psychology profession. According to mentalhealthamerica.net, “less than two percent of American Psychological Association members are African-American.”.

Despite the fact that Harris had a positive counseling experience, he says that if a friend came to him needing advice, he would not advise that his friend go and seek counseling. “I feel like it’s frowned upon for a man to seek help such as counseling, I mean to each his own.” he said. “If you look at any portrayal of a man and a woman women are more emotional, women are weaker, and men are supposed to be strong and keep things together. . . It’s frowned upon for men to seek help. Women gossip, men don’t gossip, things like that gives a portrayal of weakness.”

How religion plays a role.

In Ephraim’s case, religion has been one of the more positive factors in his life which is common, but it’s also important to discuss the ways that religion can hold people back from seeking the help that they may need.

There are two very different schools of thought when it comes to religion and the African-American family. On one hand, religion has been cited as being a “psychological necessity for mankind” according to a study by Prakash B. Behere, Anweshak Das, Richa Yadav, and Aniruddh P. Behere in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. In more recent years however, more people have taken notice of the negative effects that practicing a strict religion can have on a person’s mental well-being.

In black families it’s common to find that any occurrences or experiences seen as negative or troublesome are often ignored, which sets the tone for African-American men keeping their problems to themselves instead of speaking up and seeking treatment.

Kaliah Thomas gave her opinion on the role of religion in the family and how it can affect people’s willingness to seek counseling or therapy.

“If someone is raised to believe all they need to do it turn to the lord for their answers then it’s kind of counterproductive to the message of seeking a professional. Sometimes looking at it from that way can prevent someone seeing the necessity to reach out to somebody else. They won’t see the necessity for it because they feel like all of those answers can be provided to them through their religion. It’s not unheard of, it’s very common.”

In Closing.

Throughout this investigation about the negative stigma attached to counseling, therapy, and mental health within the African-American community, what I’ve gathered shows that there are several factors to consider when approaching the topic of African-American men and their mental health.

While societal views and pressures play an important role in the unwillingness of the average African-American male seeking and receiving treatment for any mental health problems that may arise, the only way to combat this is not only to increase awareness about the importance of mental health and wellness, but to re-evaluate the way that we approach these men in reference to this topic. Kaliah Thomas gave some insight based on her experience as a social worker and therapist. “For men in therapy they’re only going to go if they feel comfortable. They’re only going to stay if they assess the person that they’re working with to be someone who they can trust and that person has to be really really good at building rapport, making them feeling comfortable building rapport. That’s what’s important for therapists working with African-American males.”

Credits:

Created with images by jaimerivera - "Kid Cudi - Man on The Moon Performance"

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