(Non)Toxic Masculinity Lifestyle Columns

It’s All in Your Mind: Mental Health for Black Men

Robert Monson

“Resilience in the face of adversity is both a strength and a weakness for Black people. Somewhere along the way, we learned that we can never be vulnerable.”

Dr. Rheeda Walker, The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health

These past few years have afforded me the gift of…chaos? As 2019 came to a close, and as we all clung to the promise of a new year, who knew how violent, how turbulent, and how painful our world would become?

Covid 19 ripped through the globe, destroying lives, properties, and plans, turning the hearts of humanity upside down. If that weren’t enough, America seemed to finally be paying attention to the brutalization that Black people experience daily at the hands of police and everyday citizens. The specter of Black trauma and anguish seemed to haunt our days and nights. 

How can a Black man keep his way with all this pain and suffering? How can we even begin to stay clothed in our right minds? I want to talk some about Black mental health, especially for Black men. The lack of healthy dialogue around these topics continues to hinder us in both overt and subtle ways. 

Full disclosure: I am not a mental health professional. I can’t speak decisively on this topic. All I have are my experiences and observations. With that said, the many broken pieces of my life have pointed to getting the proper tools to gird up my mental health. 

Mental health isn’t something Black people, especially Black men, talk about. I must confess that throughout most of my life, the phrase “mental health” was synonymous with “insane.” Any talk of a person needing help for their mind was always equated with severe problems, mental institutions, or psychosis. 

There were two adults from my formative years who taught me more about emotions and mental health than I ever could have thought possible. Most of their lessons were negative, but they were instructive nonetheless. 

The first lesson came when I observed Adult #1 having an emotional breakdown. There was something about seeing this adult have a breakdown before my very eyes that frightened me. There was something about the breakdown that shook me in my childlike innocence and caused me to feel helpless. 

There was something visceral and animalistic about her breakdown that shook me to my core. I instinctively realized that there was nothing that I could do to alleviate this situation, to remedy her pain. She needed help that I could not give. 

Adult #1 was an emotional landscape. Her emotions ebbed and flowed like a wild river cutting through the mountains, both beautiful and terrifying. 

In contrast, Adult #2’s emotions were locked away in a vault that no one–not even him, seemingly–could access. 

Adult #2’s presence looms larger than life in the bulk of my childhood memories. He kept his emotions locked up tight; fleeting were the instances that I experienced his laughter and joy. More often than not, I felt the bitterness of his being. I never saw him cry, even when his siblings died. 

My formative years taught me that emotions were chaotic and wild. I learned that if I wanted to be a man, I needed to have a strong grip on things, to detach if necessary.

I have found it helpful to think of mental health as a spectrum. In the same way that I assess the health of my body every day, I also attempt to ascertain my mental health. I routinely check in with myself to see how I feel in a given moment or on a given day. 

There are simple questions that you can ask yourself: 

What joys have I yet to fully embrace? What am I proud of? When am I most likely to feel irritable? What causes me to feel rejected or alone? What helps me to feel stable? 

I have integrated these kinds of questions into my internal dialogue.

Black men aren’t often given the permission to feel. We are frequently expected to be loud and dominant. We are named by the oppression that we experience and forced into a thousand different and sometimes conflicting identities. 

Black men need spaces where they have permission to experience the fullness of their emotions. We need space to heal from the wounds of a country that hates us, of parents who haven’t taught us boundaries, and of conflicting messages about masculinity. 

In recent years, discussing the complexities of the issues that Black men experience has become increasingly normalized. People of all genders are doing the work to become mentally and emotionally well.  

I wish to leave you with another quote from Rheeda Walker’s book, The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health:

 “What inspired me to earn a Ph.D. is the assumption in mainstream psychology that Black people’s depression looks the same as that of white people…My work is about bringing attention to our health realities.”