Black Men and Mental Health Stigma

Processed with VSCO with a5 presetWritten by Anthony Mahon

Art by Alyssa Luongo

In 2016, #YouGoodMan began trending on Twitter after rapper Kid Cudi openly discussed his mental health struggles. Cudi’s post helped to renew and spread a dialogue about the stigmatization of black men and mental health. Two years later, it’s very much still a conversation that needs to be had.

Around 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. Kahlil Ellis, 20, of Northwestern University agreed to share his story with Chivomengro. “I was officially diagnosed last summer, but I suspect I’ve been dealing with mental issues most of my life. I’ve struggled with mental issues, specifically depression and anxiety for a while now. It’s been extremely difficult, especially considering sometimes I’m not able to express my true self due to these struggles.”

African Americans are 20% more likely to deal with serious mental health problems than the general population. In many cases, this can be due to poverty because African Americans living below the poverty line are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty. In other cases, it is brought on by continuing mental health stigma. For Kahlil, mental health is the elephant in the room within the black community. “Racial stereotypes definitely played a negative role on my mental health. Growing up, I didn’t understand the importance of mental health and I saw therapy as a ‘white’ thing, so when I started realizing I was struggling, being black, it took months to grow willing to seek help.”  

Historically speaking, hip-hop has been a widely-used platform for black men to express their mental health difficulties (See “Suicidal Thoughts” by The Notorious B.I.G., “u” by Kendrick Lamar, “Dressed Like Rappers” by Isaiah Rashad and “Wounds” by Kid Cudi). However, the masses often get lost in the entertainment factor while critics consider hip-hop to glorify violence and drug addiction. What fails to be truly grasped is the underlying issue of mental health within the music. Music and other forms of media are used to craft poisonous and unrealistic standards of masculinity among black men.

That imaginary standard is one that many black men feel they have to live up to. Mental health difficulties are too often attributed to being “soft”. In turn, it creates a destructive environment where black males are taught from a very young age that showing their emotions is a bad thing.  “As a man, I see endless signals telling us to tough it out, deal with it, show no weakness, etc. These stigmas of masculinity are extremely toxic, but in high school, I wasn’t thinking that. The idea of getting help was not something I could identify with. It took time to realize I needed to make a move.”

Kahlil realized he needed to act when he saw different parts of his life spiraling out of control. “Last summer, I felt like important aspects of my life—family, friendships, health, work—were being destructed because of my troubled mind. I wanted to stop that downward trend and finally start some major problem-solving, and getting help was the way to do it. That decision has changed my life.”

It isn’t uncommon for people within the black community to wait before seeking mental health as only 33% of African Americans with depression actively seek help for mental illness. The term “help” takes on a different meaning depending on the person. Someone may turn to a trusted friend, relative or even religion—as 82% of African Americans identify with some sort of faith—for mental illness relief. All of those methods are normally better than not talking to someone at all but it can also convince people to use them as substitutes for professional help. It can be difficult for people to take that major step.

That major step requires a societal change. “For black men to feel we can seek help, society needs to eliminate toxic generalizations and assumptions”, Kahlil says. “Each black man is an individual being with unique traits, abilities, beliefs and personal obstacles. It’s time we be perceived and treated as such.”

Kahlil has advice for any black men going through mental health struggles. “It’s important for black men to know that mental issues are not signs of weakness, and neither is professional intervention. In fact, seeking help and managing those issues show personal strength and bravery.”

Mental illness continues to be an ongoing struggle and although awareness and understanding increases on a daily basis, there is still work to be done. From an outside perspective, the best method of action to take is listen and encourage rather than judge. Mental illness can impact any person regardless of race or gender. Once we stop attaching false invincibility to black men, true progress can be made.

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