Heavy is the Head That Wears the Crown: Black Men and Mental Illness

Photo by PeopleImages
Untreated mental health disorders and unmanaged stress are silent killers of Black men. See what we each can do to stop an epidemic and save our brothers

Beginning in 2001 Darryl D. Moore, then a 31-year-old teacher, went through a dark period filled with a series of events that unraveled his career and family.

He was accused of assaulting a student, only to be cleared after he had already lost his job. Under the weight of this tense situation he suffered a nervous breakdown. "I had to go to a mental health facility for two months," he says. There he was diagnosed with depression and put on medication that was supposed to stabilize his condition.

Unemployed and with his marriage on the rocks, he left Atlanta and eventually settled in New Jersey to launch a career in the film industry and reset his personal life.

Unfortunately it wasn't long before tragedy struck again. Recently separated and trying to make his way in a new city, he learned of the assault of a loved one. Moore's mental health collapsed under the stress and he had another breakdown.

"I went through a serious downward spiral," he says. "I started self-medicating with alcohol and was living recklessly. I didn't care about anything."

Eventually he sought professional help at the urging of friends and family who were concerned about him. This time he got a more serious diagnosis: He wasn't just depressed, he was suffering from bipolar II disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome and crippling anxiety attacks.

"Black men are slow to get evaluated for mental health issues."

—DAVID MARION, PH.D.

The confirmation of Moore's condition verified what those close to him had feared: He faced a mental illness that threatened his safety and required professional help. But like scores of other Black men, he was embarrassed and confused about seeking treatment.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to have serious mental health problems than the general population. The pattern is more troubling for Black men because the factors that cause or exacerbate mental illness are often found in higher numbers among males in our community than they are in the general population.

For example, Black men are more likely to have extended periods of unemployment than White men or women, according to the Department of Labor, and long-term joblessness can be a precursor to depression. Exposure to violence, drug use and other stressors lead to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. In recent years there has also been a spike in suicides among Black boys. What's worse is that disorders like the ones Moore was experiencing—and more serious psychoses like schizophrenia—tend to go untreated in Black men for reasons ranging from family and community stigmatization to lack of adequate insurance.

"Black men are slow to get evaluated for mental health issues," says therapist David Marion, Ph.D., whose Jackson, Mississippi, practice conducts individual, family and group counseling for people as young as age 3. Another factor that keeps Black men out of counseling, he says, is that many are reluctant or unable to visit a primary care physician, who is often the first medical professional to identify signs of depression or other illnesses.

"It goes against what we have in our minds of how we are meant to be: Strong Black men should be able to handle any and everything in their lives. We've been socialized to believe we should be able to work through any problems that happen in our lives or marriage. If we cannot, that is a signal that we are weak," Marion says.

Mary Pender Greene, a psychotherapist and relationship expert in New York City, says relationship trouble is what usually draws men into her office. After being confronted with make-or-break conflicts in their romantic lives, some opt for couples therapy rather than risk losing their partners. Sometimes, though, men discover that they haven't developed healthy communication patterns, which can lead to stress inside and outside of their relationships.

"They withdraw or become angry or argumentative. They stop living the lives they used to live," Greene says. "It's very unusual, no matter how much is going on with them, for a man to ever say to me, 'I'm sad or depressed.' "

"We hold stuff in and that's why we don't live as long."

—DARRYL D. MOORE

Because of that, Greene says it's critical for partners or family members to notice changes in a man's behavior—if he has become sullen or excessively argumentative, for example—and encourage him to seek assistance.

"If you're saying to yourself, He's not the same. He's not himself. That's usually an indicator," she says.

But it doesn't always need to be family or romantic partners who intervene. Last year Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., launched an initiative to encourage members to seek counseling and remove the stigma surrounding mental health. The program was implemented shortly before a member of the organization was killed by his mentally ill son.

The incident was a wake-up call for the Omegas, says Tony Knox, the fraternity's grand basileus. The group had long-standing programs to address the overall well-being of members, which included their emotional state. But at a 2013 meeting of national leaders in Kansas City, Missouri, the prevalence of mental health problems among Black men came up and it was decided that more needed to be done.

"We had issues within the fraternity. We had brothers whose family members were suffering, and sometimes brothers themselves," Knox says. "We knew we had to do this so that men wouldn't just ignore symptoms and signs of mental illness."

The program, called Brother, You're on My Mind, is a partnership with the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Each of the frat's regional districts now has someone designated to connect other members with mental health resources when necessary. Representatives from the National Institutes of Health as well as therapists are scheduled to conduct a session on mental health at the fraternity's annual meeting in July, says Knox.

Moore, who is also an Omega Psi Phi member, is scheduled to be among the speakers. He now lives in Euclid, Ohio, with his children. The entire family undergoes therapy to help cope with their past trauma, something Moore hopes to encourage more men to do.

"I talk to so many men and they're like, "There's nothing wrong. I'm okay." But we're not okay," he says. "We hold stuff in and that's one of the reasons why we don't live as long."

To learn more about Brother, You're on My Mind, visit oppf.org/byomm.

HOW TO HELP HIM

The National Institutes of Health shares the following steps to assist a loved one who may appear depressed:

Help him find a doctor or mental health professional, make an appointment and ensure that he gets there.

Offer him support, understanding, patience and encouragement.

Talk to him, and listen carefully. Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to his doctor.

Invite him out for walks and outings. If he says no, keep trying, but don't push him.

Remind him that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.

Keith Reed (@k_dot_re) is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, ESPN The Magazine and Vibe. His commentary has been featured on CNN, CNBC and MSNBC.

WANT MORE FROM ESSENCE? Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the latest in hair, beauty, style and celebrity news.

Read More
Filed under: News