How Black men are making space for their own mental wellness

Fostering conversations about our emotions is crucial. But, I wondered, what does that look like in 2022?

Illustration of a group of black men wearing colorful shirts, all hugging
Mental Health

A few years ago, I lost a job, a boyfriend, and an apartment all within three months of each other in rapid, debilitating succession. To say that I was in a dark place was an understatement, but thankfully I had the presence of mind to seek out professional help to work through some of my problems. However, as helpful as my new psychiatrist was trying to be, she was a white woman, and I am a Black man. I found myself spending hours explaining things to her that would be patently obvious to someone of my race and sex. Clinical mental health care — talk therapy and meds, if necessary — is crucial but for anyone struggles. But for Black men, fostering conversations about our emotions can be an indispensable part of healing. But, I wondered, where do conversations about our mental health exist look like in 2022? And what do they look like?

First, I think it’s about committing to yourself. A 2015 National Center for Health Statistics survey found that only 26.4% of Black and Latinx men ages 18 to 44 who experienced daily feelings of anxiety or depression were likely to have used mental health services, compared with 45.4% of non-Hispanic white men with those same feelings.

Further, only a small percentage of non-Hispanic Black men (6.1%) reported their daily feelings of anxiety or depression. That seems to indicate, in my opinion, that although most Black men in this country have reason to feel stressed, a lot of us aren’t admitting it. But, thankfully, that’s changing, albeit not just on a therapist’s couch. The way Black men express their mental health is evolving in the way we’ve always survived historically — by leaning on each other.

“I compare the experiences of Black men to a reflex,” says Charles Daniels Jr., a Boston-based social worker and founder of Fathers Uplift, a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility for fathers and families. There’s an involuntary response associated with racism for us, he reminds me. These responses get stronger every time we see a headline about a cop shooting an unarmed Black person, everytime we get a strange look on the street from a white person, or anytimes we experience a microaggression.

“Here's the thing — no amount of success can remove that discomfort,” Daniels adds, and I agree. I was someone who fit the model minority stereotype for most of my life: great college, lucrative job, “clean-cut” appearance. When I lost my successful trifecta, it would’ve been so helpful to talk to a strong Black man who had gone through professional and personal loss like I had, because I truly didn’t have anyone like that in my life to turn to.

“The Black male experience in mental health is complicated, and it comes with an array of complex cultural, spiritual, and historical connotations,” says Baqi Martin, a Dallas- and Fort Worth-based social worker and executive director at Connections Wellness Group. Black folk have good reason to harbor a deep mistrust of the American health care system. Anyone whose forefathers were targeted by Tuskegee experiment would be justified to hesitate to seek medical help, let alone mental health care. Until the mid ‘60s as well, Black people were relegated to segregated, often subpar mental institutions. That’s why a lot of Black men have sought out psychological help from a familiar face — our own.

“We live in a world that is not receptive to me or any of us having a full range of emotion.”

“There is still a limited understanding and acceptance of mental health in general, making it that much more difficult for Black men in America to process their mental health in a meaningful way,” Martin adds. American culture particularly looks at Black men as the nadir of masculinity, much to our detriment. Black men under the white gaze, being deemed “strong stock” was even explored to Oscar winning heights in Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

Black men like me have a tendency to internalize all of that to a certain extent, thinking of ourselves as unsinkable and at times, unworthy of support. Undoing that damage is very important.

Times are changing though, because of several factora. One of them is a new cohort of professional Black male athletes, like Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and the Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan, who are now speaking up about the importance of mental health by candidly — and publicly — sharing their own experiences. They’ve, probably unintentionally, brought forth the idea that you can be strong and capable but also seek help.

Of course, physical and mental health go hand-in-hand in this case too. Black men are fostering important, candid conversations with each other on the podcast Off the Strength, hosted by Tony Vidal, Kyle Jones, and Corey Harbison — three young Black fitness enthusiasts and professional trainers who discuss topics as far ranging as New Year's resolutions to pushing through anxiety and stress through fitness. In this space, they explore what it means to be "well" to them — by all accounts of the word.

Tony Vidal

“I’ve always found that movement was a language in which I could connect directly to my mental health,” says Jones, whose formal training in strength and conditioning led him to transition to teaching yoga. “I felt like there just weren't people that looked like me in the classes — and they weren't playing the music that I wanted to listen to.” As Jones points out, the wellness journey is a comprehensive one, and it needs to feel organic to him and his peers.

“I have a lot of people that are of like mind when it comes to mental health — which is rare unfortunately,“ Vidal says, mentioning that he recently got in a cycling accident and hasn’t been able to ride with his group. “Since I wasn't doing any of the activities that we usually do, they periodically check in with me, on my mental health or to just see what's going on, because they know how much of my identity I lost when I got here.” This is especially tough on those that know the mind-body connection is strong, working out helps improve one’s mental health, and stopping a tried-and-true workout routine has detrimental effects on mood, memory, concentration, and also can increase symptoms of depression.

KR Jones

As for those of us who are trying to find community with other Black men outside the gym, consider starting at home. “I have a young brother, and cousins that are around my age,” says Jones, who is 30. “I try to approach it with radical transparency, because I really think that's the only way that we can go about it. You can sense the discomfort when you bring mental health up amongst our community, but really, just asking, ‘How are you feeling? No, but like, really?’ can open up our vulnerabilities in order to even start to address our issues.”

“For the majority of my life, mental health was not something that was openly discussed,” Vidal adds. “I know we live in a world that is not receptive to me or any of us having a full range of emotion in any route. So translating what our anger, our depression, our happiness and joy look like is something we as Black men all have to learn, since we historically haven’t been allowed a full color palette to paint with.”

Black men are finding ways to take care of themselves psychologically, through medical care, physical activity, through nonprofits like Fathers’ Uplift and even more unconventional means like The Confess Project, a nonprofit organization that facilitates conversations about mental health by utilizing barbers to connect with Black men. The diversifying of resources is incredible to me, because now those conversations that have been happening in the barbershop for decades can happen more often.

“Some Black men see our barber more than we see our doctor,” says KJ Hughes, founder of Manifest, a barbershop in Washington, DC and faculty director of University of Maryland’s Sports and Entertainment Business program. “The start to all health – mental, physical, emotional – is a safe space to share. Sometimes a simple ‘how you doing today, champ’ will help someone unlock and reflect.” Some things never change of course. And as long as that leads to some inner peace for a Black man, that’s okay with me.