The emotional stoicism of Black men is something that few authors have talked about. Most notable of the few books on the topic, the author bell hooks’ work We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity discusses the lack of love and acceptance that Black men face, creating an emotional crisis.
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. This is discussed further in Charlie Donaldson’s and Randy Flood’s book Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood.
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.
That’s not to say that the tide isn’t shifting for Black men. Back in 2016 musician Kid Cudi openly talked about his depression on his social media account. Following this revelation, the internet made it a point to talk about Black men’s mental health with the hashtag #YouGoodMan. This movement was designed to help encourage Black men to talk more about mental health issues together and serve as one another’s keepers. It was a moving moment in pop culture history to witness.
Kanye West has been more open in recent years about his mental health issues. Mogul Jay Z openly talked about infidelity and attending therapy around the release of his album 4:44. Artists like Logic and Prodigy have also previously highlighted conversations on mental health in their work and public imagery. We are seeing a shift take place, but for many it’s not fast enough.
The Barriers To Seeking Help
Unrealistic expectations based on gender and race often keep many Black men (and other men of color) out of therapy. The stereotype is that men don’t even like to ask for directions! You can imagine how hard it is to say to another person out loud, “I think I need some help.”
It is a circular problem we experience. In order for Black men to get help, they must open up enough to let someone know that they need help. But in order to open up and ask for help, they have to crack the cool facade that bell hooks talks about in her works. As a Black man myself, I’ve felt that tension (and sometimes still do). I’ve also seen my clients struggle through letting themselves be in a vulnerable position, even while sitting across from someone who looks just like them. In most instances, Black men have not grown up believing that their internal emotional lives have inherent and productive value. This needs to change.
There is also a great distrust of medical providers by Black communities, especially amongst African American men. Historically, Black bodies have been used and abused by science in order to make scientific discoveries — think of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, wherein African American men were left untreated to study the progression of the disease.
Black women have been subjected to this kind of treatment too. It is historical experiences like these that have created a deep cultural chasm that Black men must be aware of, and overcome, to allow someone into their hearts and minds. And let’s face it, that scene in Get Out didn’t help either! However, the fear of being sent into “the sunken place” by a racist psychologist in a thriller isn’t the nexus of that distrust and fear, it’s a representation of it.
Stigma and racism are big factors in the decision for Black men to seek support for mental health issues. Some research has even indicated that economic status often makes up a significant part of Black men’s mental health concerns, indicating a need for providers to not only unpack racialized experiences but also offer support on financial issues as well.
A Path Forward for Men’s Mental Health Month
As we enter Men’s Mental Health Month, it’s important for us to take a step back and honor the mental and emotional health of ourselves as men, and invest in spaces that help us unpack the influence of toxic masculinity that permeates through our society today.
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.
It’s well worth the risk.