As positive images of blackness circulate—from the very recent release of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) to the lovely images painted of our 44th president and first lady by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald just this year—they circulate in combat with the narrative that often dehumanizes us. We are often spoon fed, nay force fed, the idea that black men are dangerous, but history has proven that this population is the one who faces the most danger—from the slave master, to the KKK member, to the police officer, to our legal system, which arguably stems from each of the aforementioned aggressors. Black men are the ones in need of protecting. While physical protection may be necessary, certainly from police brutality, there is a mental safeguard that needs attention not only to sustain some semblance of peace among black men and the black community, but also to enrich the futures of these men’s lives and the lives of those who surround them.
Considering our unique history—one in which minorities built the nation in which the majority thrives, and one in which minorities, specifically immigrants, keep it thriving—we need unique mental care. Breslau et al (2005) explains that while black people have lower rates of mental illness, it is their lack of access to treatment that makes their mental illness more severe. This is especially true for men who face inordinate prison sentences, homelessness, or areas governed by violence. Particularly related to the last obstacle, the stigma associated with accessing treatment or even being proactive about mental health is a debilitating one. This is not coming from the boys around the block alone. It also comes from the closest family members who simply do not believe that mental illness is just as real as physical illness. To acknowledge his need for therapy or medication would be an indication of weakness in some circles, and in those same circles, weakness can lead to violence or death. So, which does he choose? Mental health or physical health? He chooses his body over his mind because his body is tangible, visible, and his mind preserves the thoughts which distract and haunt him without anyone really taking any notice. The problem, however, is that all of it eventually catches up with him, and without intending to let it harm him physically, he is in a position where he is being handcuffed for disturbing the peace, or worse he is shot for being misunderstood.
Prison, poverty, violence. Each of these boils down to power, and traditionally, confronting a mental illness is about disempowerment. The idea of not having control of your thoughts suggest that you lack power. But none of us really have control of what we think. We can think about something and then make the decision to think about something else, but we don’t really have control over what comes to mind. The feeling of disempowerment is a socially imposed feeling when it comes to discovering mental illness. The feeling of disempowerment is tied to restrictions that we don’t place on someone who has cancer. A cancer patient receives his diagnosis and then makes a decision about what measures to take to fight the disease—chemotherapy, surgery, medication, or all of the above. We don’t judge him for his decisions. He needs to get well. So why do we stigmatize depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses? Instead, we should feel empowered with the discovery of any mental illness we find before it worsens, and we should encourage those with any mental disorder to take care of themselves by whatever means necessary. We should feel proud that we can take action in a positive way.