Most of us won’t ever understand what it means to be a Black man in America. In particular, we can’t understand how living as a Black man affects psychological wellbeing, a concept that’s only now coming to light for BIPOC communities. “We grew up in a time when we heard negative jargon and language around mental health.” says Xiomara Arrieta, a clinical social worker who specializes in anxiety, depression and cultural assimilation issues.
The good news? Addressing mental health needs is less stigmatized for people of color than it used to be. The bad news? Studies show that men of color are less likely than women of color to seek treatment or report mental health challenges, despite depression being the most common mental illnesses among this group and suicide being the third leading cause of death. (Black men are four times more likely to die by suicide than Black women).
So what are we to do? The answer, it seems, starts within the community itself.
It Starts with Representation in the Mental Health Space
The American Psychological Association reports that BIPOC individuals represent 19 percent of all therapists in America, and the number dwindles when you account exclusively for Black professionals (five percent). While all therapists are equipped to listen, offer support and provide treatment, there’s a benefit to having a therapist of color in your corner. “It’s difficult to be in a position and have somebody only relate to your experience based on what they read in a book or have seen on TV as opposed to having that real life experience,” says James Harris, founder of Men to Heal. “As a combat veteran and a licensed therapist, I’m able to serve multiple roles because I can identify when you’re talking about certain things or not wanting to engage in certain behaviors.”
“Representation matters,” agrees Arrieta. “As a Black Latina therapist, I’m happy to work with people in the diaspora. I understand why sometimes people would want to sit with me. There's a commonality. It's a difference between sharing my story with you and you getting where I'm coming from.”
But It’s Not Only About Searching Through a Directory
Other factors can hinder men of color from reaching out for help. For starters, some communities have little to no access to services and treatments. Additionally, economic hardship can play a role in whether or not people seek said services to begin with (which they are less likely do if uninsured, according to the NCHS). There’s also a long history of the BIPOC community being used in medical studies without consent, leading to overall mistrust. In 2015, research from the National Library of Medicine even shows that Black men are more likely than other groups to receive a misdiagnosis or deal with racial biases at the doctor’s office.
“POC have faced discrimination and racism within healthcare and mental health systems [for decades], which makes it difficult for us to trust and access those resources,” says Deliah Antoinette, founder of the Black Girl’s Healing House Facebook Group. “I live in a state where mental health resources are the first to get cut and finding help is more difficult than ever. You still don’t feel seen or heard—just another patient to scratch off their list.”
Let’s Not Forget the Power of Masculinity
We’d be remiss not to mention the expectations the Black community puts on its own men, who are taught to be strong, tough and never show signs of weakness. As Antoinette puts it, there’s a certain ‘manhood criteria’ that’s placed upon them. “In our community, when a baby boy cries, he is told ‘Stop acting like a girl, boys don’t cry, toughen up.’ Similarly, men are made to believe that showing vulnerability is a sign of femininity, and therefore they may feel ashamed to discuss their struggles with mental health,” she says. “For Black women, it’s OK for most of us to cry. But we were also taught to suck it up and keep moving, because we had to be strong. Both of us were raised that there was no room for emotion because the goal is to survive life as opposed to thriving in it.”
So how do we flip the script? “We have to do a better job as men at feeling our feelings,” says Harris. “You have to ignore the perceptions of others and live your true life, because if not, it’s going to be to the detriment of yourself.”
Black Men Are Ready to Shift the Narrative…
Despite the many obstacles in their way, some in the community are seeing a change. From Men to Heal , a nonprofit dedicated to educating men through wellness workshops and mental health tools, to Therapy for Black Men, a database for finding therapists, we’ve recently seen a rise in community programs, support groups and organizations geared towards raising awareness for mental health services for Black men.
And plenty are taking the leap. “The best advice I can give is to just try. There is no harm in trying something new for the first time—whether it’s therapy, a yoga class or a strength class. Give yourself permission to do something new, which can mentally help in other areas of your life,” says Adam Francique, a marathon runner and founder of The Body Prjct. “Therapy was something new in my life. I didn’t start it until I was 35 years old.”
And the answer isn’t just therapy. “We can do more not just from a therapeutic side, but from a wellness and physical health side,” says Harris. “Black men are less inclined to go to the doctor and get a physical. Back in the day, they thought the mind and body were separate, but now [we know] they go in tandem. Your mental health can affect your physical health and vice versa, so it’s best to have all those things checked,” he maintains.
…And Normalize Conversations by Sharing Their Stories
In a 2022 interview, rapper Kid Cudi shared his experience with anxiety and depression. Likewise, Jay-Z has always been an advocate of mental health, speaking openly about his own therapy and advocating for similar services in schools. Even Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has spoken out about his mental health challenges (despite backlash from white sports analysts).
In short, it’s about normalizing mental health struggles and successes. As Francique explains, it’s all about community and finding an accountability partner you can rely on whenever you feel alone. “They don’t have to be going through the same thing as you. There are going to be low points throughout your journey, but when you have someone that knows what you’re going through, it’s helpful.”
The most important thing is for men to remember that they are not alone. “If I would have known other people were going through these things, I would have gone through my mental health journey a little bit differently,” says Francique. But now? “I’m glad I’m able to help someone with my story.”