The conditioning that fuels the mental health epidemic for Black men, and how to stop it
It’s not too late to challenge and unlearn these values that bring Black men harm and cause harm to others
By J.R. Yussuf
I began prioritizing my mental health shortly after graduating college in 2012. I still felt as though I had to keep it a secret because going to see a therapist was seen as bizarre. But I went anyway because with each passing day, life increasingly felt like a punishment and soon sleep became one of the only things I looked forward to.
I remember a particular incident with my mother when she found out I was going to a “shrink.” She interrogated me afterward, asking if I planned to commit suicide, and if not, why would I want to see a shrink?
A long silence would follow me telling friends that I was seeing a mental health professional so that I could get to a healthier version of myself. Often my friends would change the subject suddenly or pretend they hadn’t heard me. I sensed an uneasiness when I would post questions about addressing childhood trauma and anti-Black conditioning on my Twitter and Facebook. The term self-care had not made it to the mainstream yet, and all of this made me feel incredibly alone and unsupported outside of therapy.
Though seven years have passed and it seems that therapy and mental hygiene have become less stigmatized in the media and socially, many Black men still don’t feel supported when it comes to our mental health. A lot of us legitimately feel as though no one cares. There are specific barriers that stand in our way, from economic ones to what we’re taught about gender to cultural norms to the historical misconduct of medical professionals that leads to a founded distrust of them.
I’d like to address some of these barriers in the hopes that Black men reading this will prioritize their mental health, whether they seek out a mental health professional or not.
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Gender, through the lens of white supremacy, prescribes how we should be, instead of accepting us how we are. It tells boys they’re not supposed to cry (or even feel emotion), and it tells girls they’re supposed to be good at cooking and play with Barbies. Those are small examples of a much larger issue, and these gendered lessons exist at every turn, are all-consuming and ripple across our lives.
There are people in bodies deemed masculine who have been told they are a boy time and time again, even though that’s not how they feel inside. They are told their feelings are unnatural and irrelevant. Boys are told over and over again that they must follow certain rules, their lives must be a certain way, their dreams must be a certain thing.
Gender also tells us that we are not whole and are only one part of a whole; the whole being a man and a woman. This is incredibly anti-queer and an unhealthy way to view yourself and a relationship. Viewing yourself as less than a whole being who possesses the capacity to be masculine and feminine, and perform a variety of roles or possess skills that are deemed feminine, is illogical.
It is terrifying to think that so many of us internalize these messages on a deep, subconscious level, a message that exposes men to constant emotional isolation and violence if they exist outside of these preset parameters. It is alarming that many men move through life seeing themselves as incomplete because they will never be with a woman or because they have yet to marry their “soulmate.” It’s alarming that people will not teach their boys how to cook, robbing them of that necessary survival skill. It is alarming how many people feel uncomfortable seeing men cry.
There has been so much work done to condition us in the realms of gender and that shit doesn’t just go away when you’re talking about mental health. It seeps into every single thing. But it’s not too late to challenge and unlearn these values that bring us harm and cause harm to others:
Expecting Women to be Our Therapists
Conditioning also tells Black men that our own mental health is not our responsibility, but the responsibility of the women in our lives. This is incredibly sexist and quite futile. Every woman is not a trained medical health professional. Every woman cannot help you unpack, learn coping skills and deal with your shit.
It is sexist to think that mental and emotional healing is the duty of a woman, and it is sexist to think that women are inherently better at mental health, better at having emotions than men are. It conditions us to unfairly believe women must be able to take care of everyone else’s mental health and be better with words without being paid (or paid the same as their male counterparts) for their labor.
It’s vital that we all strive to be whole, healthy beings even while we’re single, it’s vital to be able to navigate certain physical challenges and to exercise emotional intelligence. We collectively have to stop insinuating that anything relating to emotion is synonymous with being weak or inferior, truly understanding that femininity is not only innate in women and masculinity is not only innate in men. Each of us is made up of feminine energy and masculine energy, and bringing the two into balance, without prizing one over the other, is a step in the right direction.
Refusing to Ask for Help
Because many Black men foster our own unique ways of coping with many of the difficulties we face (day to day, systematically and institutionally), have a source of income, and are able to have platonic and romantic relationships, we think that we don’t need any help, and certainly not the help of a therapist.
Seeking help from a therapist does not mean you are weak (and there is nothing wrong with being weak), it means you have the strength to admit where you are in this very moment and recognize that you could afford to improve in some areas. There is no shame in that.
People of all abilities can benefit from various forms of therapy in a number of ways. People go to therapy for interview/job prep, work stress, to get better at negotiating, because they want to feel happier, because they are feeling overwhelmed with life in general, because they are feeling lost, because they want to be able to connect with others, sexuality and gender struggles, family issues, childhood trauma, past trauma in general, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, weight issues, self-esteem, anger, HIV & AIDS, and the list goes on. All of these reasons for seeking out a therapist are valid. There are mental health professionals of various races, genders and sexualities who have dedicated a part of their lives to learning how to help people address these things in a safe, confidential way.
Having Our Valid Distrust of Medical Professionals Ignored
At the same time, there is a long-standing, horrific history in this country of medical targeting, experimentation, racist studies, institutionalization, kidnapping, performing autopsies on Black people who are still alive, apathy and a whole host of other things enacted by medical health professionals toward Black people. Worse still if you’re Black and queer.
Because of this, it is understandable (and perhaps advisable) that Black men would pause before considering being willingly vulnerable around mental health professionals (or reject the idea altogether). We can’t expect those wounds and that deep mistrust to just disappear right away.
Many Black people opt for a Black therapist, many let their therapists who are not Black know about their justifiable reservations at various steps of care, and many pick and choose from accessible mental health resources that may not have had Black people in mind and do away with what doesn’t suit them.
I also want to make it very clear that therapy is not the end all be all. Having access to therapy is a very privileged thing and not having access does not mean you are damned. Therapy only helped me because I wanted to do the work, I believed I could get better, I wanted to and I was fortunate in countless ways. I don’t think a person can see a therapist and get much from the experience if they’re not ready to change, they’re not ready to face themselves or think they can’t be helped.
RELATED: For Black people who avoid mental health treatment for reasons other than our “culture” or fear of malpractice
In the beginning, I’d come into my therapy sessions, sit down across from my therapist and think, “fix me! You’re a therapist, aren’t you? This is your job, isn’t it? Why am I not fixed?” But I learned that I wasn’t broken in the first place, and that it doesn’t exactly work like that. I had to be active with my own mental health and could not treat my troubles as though they are anyone else’s responsibility, even my therapist’s. I had to do the work in the interim between therapy sessions (getting at least 7 hours of sleep, exercising, cognitive behavioral therapy work, distancing myself from people who don’t mean me well, setting boundaries, etc.) and have a certain willingness overall.
Whether therapy is something you eventually participate in or not, it’s important to keep in mind something bell hooks said in an interview (48:48), “What I want is people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk…[since] learning takes place in the harmonious space.”
If you’re just showing up to a therapist, or to anything for that matter, and expecting that you will overcome all of your issues immediately, you’re in for the same rude awakening I was back in 2012. You have to constantly invest in yourself. It is a huge step finding a therapist that you can afford, who is qualified to navigate the things you’d like to address who you also get along with, but it doesn’t end there. Mental health doesn’t begin and end with having a therapist.
Though societal norms may be shifting so that mental hygiene and therapy are less stigmatized, it is clear that many Black men are still feeling left out of the picture and are instead feeling isolation and lack of support. And while it is clear that some of that is because this is a very personal journey that can be lonely at times, much of that loneliness and lack of support is clearly tied up in racist patriarchal ideas of how Black men should be.
The sooner we divest from those ideals, and the oppression that comes along with it, the healthier we will be and the sooner we will be able to step out of that isolation and find exactly what works for each of us.
Resources: Feminist Counseling, Affordable Therapy for Queer People & Couples, Queer Asterisk, The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, The Friend Zone podcast, self-help books (Unlimited by Jillian Michaels, The Power of a Positive No by William Ury, The Green Light of Forgiveness by Toshia Shaw) and my YouTube Channel which is devoted to self-improvement, emotional intelligence & mental health.
J.R. Yussuf is a Nigerian-American, New York native. J.R. deeply believes in the importance of personal power, and in addition to being an actor, is the 1st place winner of a 2016-2017 Reader Views Literary Award in the Self-Help category for The Other F Word: Forgiveness, a book for anyone who has ever struggled with forgiveness and letting things go. Yussuf maintains a YouTube channel devoted to self-improvement, emotional intelligence & forgiveness. His writing has appeared in the anthologies Best Bi Short Stories: Bisexual Fiction, finalist for a 2014 Lambda Literary Award and a 2014 Rainbow Award, and Double Consciousness: An Autoethnographic Guide To My Black American Existence, which soared to #1 Best-Seller in Kindle African American Poetry within it’s first week of being released, as well as Positively Positive, The Good Men Project, Escarp, Instigatorzine, and The CultureLP. Yussuf created the tag #bisexualmenspeak for bi+ men & masculine identified folks to have the space to speak for themselves & talk about how being bi+ impacts the way they move through the world. Learn more at www.JRYussuf.com