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Depression vs. The Strong Black Man

In Black culture, more often than not, men are not encouraged nor given a chance to be open with how they feel and be in touch with their feelings. The cultural pressure to be a ‘strong Black man’ can be psychologically and physically taxing. Men may feel that seeking treatment for mental health issues may somehow validate the negative stereotypical ideas which people hold about the Black community.

So what does it mean to be a ‘strong Black man’? The answer depends on who you ask. In my experience, I’ve learned that it’s someone who is proud of their heritage and your identity. Regardless of how you define it, it’s important to know that depression is not something that can defeat or cripple a strong Black man.

“A culture of hyper-masculinity, particularly among Black men, can create false beliefs that depression is something that doesn’t impact them–and even if it does, conquering it starts with the help of others,” says Isaiah Pickens, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist.

depression black man

The statistics tell us a disturbing story, where at least 70% of Black men will experience severe depression in their lifetime. The suicide rate among Black men is twice as high as those of Black women, as provided by Terrie M. Williams, therapist and the author of Black Pain: It Only Looks Like We’re Not Hurting. Also, a 2007 study from the American Medical Association showed that Major Depressive Disorder was most chronic for African Americans (56.5%) and Caribbean Americans (56%).

It’s important not to underestimate the damage which undiagnosed or untreated depression can cause to a person and the people around them. Depression is one of the many mood disorders that can affect your ability to connect with other people, inhibit performance at work, negatively affect your functions day-to-day, and impact on your ability to sleep, eat and relax. Only 45% of African Americans and 24% of Caribbean Americans in the 2007 study from the American Medical Association sought any treatment for it. If the black community as a whole does not usually seek treatment, then it ‘s hard to help people who are struggling.

As children, many boys are taught to “man up,” when faced with challenging and painful circumstances. On the one hand, this builds resilience and trains them to draw upon their inner strength to combat some of the difficulties in life. At the same time, it’s important for all of us to learn to keep the communication lines open to express your thoughts and feelings regarding stress, sadness or grief. Many Black men feel that masking their emotions and stress may make others feel that they are “strong” and masculine, but they are putting themselves at a significantly higher risk for depression by continuously doing so.

How do you know if you are simply having a bad day, or whether you need to seek help for depression? Here are some of the common symptoms you should look out for, according to Mental Health America:

  • A persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood, or excessive crying.
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased appetite and weight gain.
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain.
  • Irritability and restlessness.
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down.”
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism.
  • Sleeping too much or too little, early-morning waking.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts.

A Practical Cultural Solution

Isaiah Pickens says, “Part of the solution involves expanding our definition of masculinity to include men having the freedom to express physical and emotional pain without fearing that their masculinity will be compromised.”

The first step is encouraging Black men to get into the habit of opening up to others about their everyday struggles, fears, and feelings. It’s important also to discuss feelings about racism and discrimination. Ultimately this will lessen their chances of suffering from depression.

It’s important for the Black community to embrace the idea that experiencing mental health issues does not mean that you are lazy, weak or that you have major character flaws. In fact, you can learn to manage your feelings in a healthy way by adopting a few approaches.

“There needs to be a shift from discussing mental illness to mental health prevention,” says Monnica Williams, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “With the current cultural landscape filled with seemingly endless instances of community-level trauma, it is necessary to start having serious discussions about the role of trauma and stress in the lives of Black men and how these things affect our individual and collective ability to move and function in the world.”

Tips for Becoming a Stronger Black Man

  • Keep your communication lines open. Be prepared to stay in touch with the people whom you know they care about you. They can be your close friends, your family, the wider community or even religious or spiritual organizations who will not form a judgment on you.
  • If you have an existing health issue or experiencing a new one, seek help from the relevant professionals promptly.
  • Manage your priorities in work and your personal life. Work on the ones who demand your attention immediately, and be ready to say no if you feel overwhelmed or stressed.
  • Take on a positive outlook life. Congratulate yourself when you do something well.
  • Let your issues go and avoid mulling over problems. Look to qualified health professionals who can provide you some guidance and mentorship.
  • Be active by exercising for approximately 30 minutes a day. Exercise can be any activity such as walking, jogging or running, etc. Exercising releases serotonins which are a good mood booster and helps reduce your stress levels.
  • Be sensitive to your body’s needs, such as addressing any issues which arise due to your body’s response to stress. These can be insomnia, the need for more alcohol or substance reliance, feeling easily irritated, angered or depressed, and experiencing low levels of energy or a lack of focus.
  • Consider taking up alternative methods such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, pilates, or retreats.

If you think you are suffering from depression or know someone who you think is, contact a mental health professional today. Seeking treatment earlier is always better than waiting. Getting help as soon as possible can also significantly reduce the length of your treatment if required. You will feel better much sooner, and be on the faster pathway to recovery.

In the meantime, you can help combat depression by spending more time with people. Isolation is your enemy, and you need to remember that it is acceptable to allow others to help you.

Do not try to be an overachiever by cramming too many tasks and pushing to complete them together. You need to be kinder to yourself by taking one task at a time, and understand that this is not a form of weakness.

Stay away from making important decisions as you are recovering from depression. You may not have the best clarity, so it is advisable to focus on what you want in life and engage with trustworthy family members and friends to help you make better decisions during this time.

Continue to be active by engaging in some form of exercise. Keep your serotonin levels up, even if you are only doing mild activities such as walking.

Be positive. Always look for positive reinforcements in all aspects of your life, and enjoy what you have rather than looking for things which you may not have.

Yes, depression is isolating and fighting it feels tiring and fruitless. But do not let it swallow you up alive. Address your depression by reflecting on this short poem from Pride News Canada:

Sitting on the couch and through tears I cry

But today is different hope comes with a sigh

Relief in knowing that I am loved up high

It’s never my call to tell the earth goodbye

I will not listen to depression the one who lies

Recovery is possible so I will wipe my eyes

Never giving up always being the one who tries

Depression I will defeat you and take off the guise

Remember that you are never alone. It feels like a lonely experience, but people from every culture in this world suffer from depression. Things will get better, but you are ultimately responsible for your recovery by taking those small and vital steps towards getting treatment and becoming better.

If you continue to wear a mask, recovery will become impossible, and you have allowed culture to fool you into believing that you are weak. Even with the pain that depression brings, your life is worth living.

You are worth it.

You are strong!

Black men rarely come for treatment, but those who do are very motivated to get better.

Monnica Williams

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