Men are expected to take care of and protect their families, but what about when they need help themselves?
Can I be totally honest with you for a few moments?
I am a liar. I could tell you at least twenty times in the last year that I have lied about one particular issue. I have lied to my fiancée. I have lied to my mother. I have lied to coworkers. I have even lied to myself. Usually, when people say something that isn’t true it is because they want to serve their own selfish interests. The lie that I have consistently told has been an attempt on my part to protect those around me from dealing with worry and uneasiness about my wellbeing.
This deceit comes whenever someone asks me one simple question: “How are you doing?”
Regardless of how I am feeling or what I am going through, I manage to muster up the same response whenever that question is posed to me: ”I’m good.” Those two words have become a way for me to retreat when I feel like someone is about to start asking questions that I really do not want to answer. In my mind, people have their own problems to deal with, and no one has time to sit around and listen to what I am going through. When you have the weight of anxiety, stress, and self-doubt on your shoulders it can be hard to even articulate how you are feeling.
Even though I am not always forthright when it comes to addressing my own mental health, I seem to have all of the answers when a friend or a loved one is going through something. I can often times be heard encouraging someone to talk about their problems, or to engage in self-health regimens to decrease their levels of stress, but when it comes to how I handle my problems I do not follow my own advice. As men, that’s what we do. We want to fix everyone else’s problem before we even begin to address our own. Historically, our job has been to protect our family, and ensure our family members have everything they need.
A friend of mine has a wife and three kids in his home. He once told me that everyone’s needs including the dog’s have to be met before his because it is his job to make sure that everyone under his roof is taken care of. In fact that is the mentality that many men have. We give all that we have without the expectation of things needing to be done for us. I have taken on a similar way of thinking in my life. I am always available to listen and offer advice to those who are in need, but when it comes to addressing my own issues I tend to shut down.
Some might say that I am a bit of a hypocrite because over the last ten years I have remained silent about my own struggles with anxiety attacks and minor bouts of depression. I have never spoken about these issues publicly, or even addressed them with anyone other than immediate family. In one instance, I chose to share the information with a supervisor at work who was hounding me about my “attitude” during a rough period in my life, and that ended up backfiring on me, causing me to sink further into my natural defense mechanism of keeping my secret close.
One of the reasons I have been apprehensive about talking to anyone about my struggles is because where I come from black men are not supposed to talk about our feelings. We aren’t supposed to let anyone know that life is literally beating the breath out of us. We aren’t supposed to cry, or express any type of emotion. We aren’t supposed to let the world know that a woman broke our heart. We are expected to “be tough” and “man up” because in our culture any sign of emotion can be considered as weakness. And no man wants to be seen as being powerless…right?
So I have held on to this artificial sense of masculinity for years with the hope that no one would actually discover my truth. I have an issue that I am dealing with, and this issue comes in the form of a silent killer that is taking away more and more people of color every day.
It wasn’t until a few months ago when a friend of mine committed suicide that I realized that it may be time for me to start publically addressing the issue of depression and mental illness in the African American community. Many of us are walking around broken and in despair and unable to break away from the constant grip that mental illness has on us. We are so afraid to talk about our issues that we are causing damage to ourselves by using self-destructive behaviors like alcoholism, drug abuse, and, suicide to solve our problems.
In order for us to get this thing right, there has to be a shift in the way that we handle not only our own mental health, but also the mental health of those around us. In other words, we have to make sure that the people close to us are maintaining their mental health as well.
Many African Americans are bound by our tradition and culture. It is common for someone who is dealing with undiagnosed mental health issues to be told that they need to pray more or that they need to “give it to God”. I am a devout Christian and I know that even the Bible tells us that faith without works is dead. So, believing and trusting in God is fine, but at the same time we have to start taking the proper steps to getting treatment for our issues.
Our community has a cultural bias against mental health professionals that is largely based on misunderstandings of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. Much of this bias comes from documented abuse of power and mishandling of mental health diagnoses for people of color. In the United States, African Americans are less likely to receive accurate diagnoses for mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We have to become familiar with mental health professionals and find out how we can use them to serve our needs.
We can no longer afford to solely rely on family and social communities to help us. Having a strong support system is great, but mental illness is just that…it’s an illness that needs to be treated by medical professionals who are equipped with the tools to help. The stigma around mental illness in the African American Community has contributed to the steady increase of suicides in our community. A recent study published by the National Alliance on Mental Health found that across a recent 15-year span, suicide rates increased 233% among African Americans aged 10-14 compared to 120% among Caucasians in the same age group.
Mental illness and suicide are no longer issues that we can say don’t happen in our community. I know several people in the last year who decided to take their life because they felt like they could no longer cope with whatever issues they were facing. I can only wonder how many of those suicides could have been prevented if the individual had received proper care and treatment.
A few years ago I wrote about the increase in suicides among famous African American men, and in that article I stated how important it is for men to continue to fight and push. One of the biggest tools that we have in this fight is our ability to communicate with others. We can no longer afford to sit around and let our problems fester internally. We have to work with our loved ones, and with trained professionals to help us get through our issues.
Mental wellness is part of being a complete man. We have to give the same care to our mental health that we give to our spirituality, physical wellness, and finances etc… I will discuss the importance of protecting and bolstering mental wellness in an upcoming post. The task of allowing ourselves to become vulnerable, and verbalize our thoughts won’t always be easy, but I challenge anyone who is reading this to come up with a more detailed and completely truthful response the next time someone asks “How are you doing, today?”
Photo: Flickr/Zuerichs Strassen