By Vanessa Clarke and Alicia Benjamin
Admitting to needing help for mental health concerns is stigmatized in the U.S., and the problem is even more pronounced in the Black community.
For many African Americans, “it can be incredibly challenging to discuss the topic of mental health due to this concern about how they may be perceived by others,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “This fear could prevent people from seeking mental health care when they really need it.”
Black men face a special set of challenges around mental health.
“We don’t talk about the way mental illness affects Black men,” said Victor Armstrong, the first Chief Health Equity Officer for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). “We don’t talk about how suicide is affecting Black men,” he said. “There are nearly 3,000 suicides annually among African Americans and 80 percent of those are Black men.”
Armstrong, who currently serves on the board of directors for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) of North Carolina, went on to say that surveys of African Americans have shown that 63 percent of them believe depression is a sign of weakness.
In the 1970s, epidemiologist Sherman James, now a professor at Duke University, coined the term “John Henryism” to refer to the increased effort and stress Black people endure caused by prolonged adversity, racial discrimination, inequality and financial hardship.
“Other groups of people can have a full expression of emotion publicly,” said David Roundtree, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Charlotte. “That’s something they can enjoy, but we cannot,” he added. “Black men are perceived as a threat. We can be angry, but we can’t show a full expression of anger. We can be sad, but we cannot cry. There are a lot of microaggressions that we carry throughout life that accumulate over a time and it weighs us down.”
John Henryism leaves Black men with physical and mental health issues, said Armstrong. He said the syndrome reveals how “Black men can’t show vulnerability,” he said. “We are resilient and socialized to hold your head back, keep your mouth closed, and don’t talk about what’s going on with you. We don’t give ourselves the right to have mental health challenges.”
Roundtree expressed concern that Black men are living with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).“Young men who have witnessed violence or experienced it to the point of seeing their family get killed are getting a diagnosis that we would normally give a wartime veteran,” Roundtree said. “It is now a domestic issue and is pervasive in the African American community. Unfortunately, it’s an issue that has not been dealt with yet, culturally speaking.”
More Black therapists are needed to address the mental health problems that African Americans face. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015, in the U.S: 4% of the therapist population is Black, 5% is Asian, 5% is Hispanic and 86% is white.
Armstrong stated that today’s mental health care treatment models “weren’t built to take into account the nuances of race, culture and ethnicity.” The lack of black and brown faces providing mental health care services is having an impact on who seeks care, he added.
“A lot of our treatment models were based on the perspective of white males, and most were derived without consideration for people of color and women because they were thought of as lesser,” said Armstrong. “Today, the majority of the mental health field is female and there is a larger representation of the LGBTGIA+ community, leaving certain sects of the community unwilling to seek mental health services,” he stated. “This is most prevalent amongst the Black male population.”
Armstrong and Roundtree agree that the normalizing of mental health care treatment in the media has been helpful. On an episode of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, a popular reality show that features Black celebrities and business professionals, a group of Black men came together to support one of their friends who expressed concern about his mental health.
Also, The Breakfast Club radio co-host Charlamagne tha God, also known as Lenard McKelvey, has been extremely vocal about his ongoing struggles with anxiety. He often talks about going to counseling once a week for mental health maintenance.
“I go to therapy just to push those negative thoughts out of my mind,” he said in a 2018 article in Men’s Health magazine. “None of us can escape thinking negatively. … When you hold onto it, that’s when it grows.”
Charlamagne often encourages African American men to seek therapy. “Black men, we have so much trauma,” he said. “We constantly deal with anxiety. If you grew up in the hood, you’re going to have some sort of trauma, PTSD. … I think Black men especially should go to therapy and seek out mental help because we need it. Even if you don’t think you need it, we need it.”