As we come to the end of Men’s Health Month, I wanted to talk about mental health from my perspective. I hope that in doing so you might find the common thread of human experience that binds us as a society. In writing this, may I first say that I am not an expert on mental health. However, I do get to play one at work each day in my role as a Recovery Specialist. Anyone who knows me will confirm my lack of authority on the topic, so I am in no position to preach to anyone. However, I am quite willing to talk about what I know best, my story. My story is common in the African American male community. You’ve seen it or presumed it, men neglecting their mental health to the detriment of their family, community and society. I was no different, I waited until I was 50 and out of functional relationships to wake up and address a few things.
I am a strong African-American Man. I am the parent of children who have grown up to contribute to the world. I breezed through grad school with a 3.75. I’ve had a success filled career in Education and Mental Health Services that has lasted over 30 years. I coached a high school basketball team that scored 82.0 points per game with only one player over 6’. I was hit by a moving train and walked away relatively unharmed (and because of that). I have earned the right to wear a cape and a big S for ‘superhero’ on my chest.
Also, I am an African American male with a mental illness: depression. I have spent my share of hours in the therapist’s office. I know recovery for me, is a process I must work on daily. At times, it takes a village to keep me on task.
I used to be ashamed and secretive of the reality of having depression, but now I’m proud of the life I live. Now my life is an integrated whole, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
I know that pushing aside the leotard to reveal the inner workings of the person behind the S does not make me any less of a strong African American male. Superhero status is not really required. I cannot save the world and often I am the one who needs saving. Like many people, I once felt that having a mental illness was a sign of weakness. So I avoided treatment.
As a mental health professional, I spent lots of time convincing people otherwise, but when it was my turn I felt going to the psychiatrist was a sign of failure. I tried running, yoga, drinking, smoking, meditation and most of self-help books in the Carnegie Library catalog. Anything but mainstream medical attention. I did not want to go to a psychiatrist because “nothing is wrong with me I’m not crazy!” But I had no issue going to the dentist, my primary care doctor, or orthopedist.
Like many African American males, I stigmatized mental illness in a way we do not stigmatize obesity, diabetes, hypertension and so many chronic and life-threatening illnesses prevalent in our community. We take pills to lose weight or lower our blood pressure but not to get or stay mentally well. According to the mythology that surrounds the strength of African American men, “falling apart” is just not something we do. We survived the Middle Passage, slavery, racial oppression, economic deprivation and a few political campaigns. We know how to “handle our business”, “be a man” but we see therapy as the domain of “weak”, neurotic people who don’t know what “real problems” are.
So how do African American men begin to eliminate the stigma of mental illness so that we can get the help we need and support those who might need it? May I offer a few suggestions?
Talk about it.
Don’t whisper or gossip about it.
Talk about it at the party.
Talk about it at church.
Talk about it on TV/the radio/social media
With our loved ones
With our doctors
If we can talk about our high blood pressure, our asthma, our lung cancer we can talk about our depression. Support each other in getting help. We send friends to the doctor for nagging back pain, so send them to get relief from their mental and emotional pain too. And don’t forget to be a friend and ask them how they are doing from time to time. Don’t stigmatize the brain! It is attached to the body, so mental illness is a physical illness.
Finally, support people who share their stories of mental health disorders. It is time to show that the faces and lives of African Americans with mental illness are not just the faces and the lives of the homeless person talking to the unseen. It is my face and my life and the faces and lives of others just like me. “Coming out” requires courage. Like any other consciousness raising process, a range of role models who represent a variety of experiences with mental illness will change perceptions.
As a local community we have a list of accomplished African American men to inspire us in our various endeavors. Andrew McCutchen, Ju Ju Smith-Schuster and Coach Tomlin come immediately to mind. We need a list of African Americans with mental illness who survived and thrived. No doubt due to stigma it was difficult to find the names of locally well-known African Americans with a “confirmed” history of mental illness and this is not the place for gossip or rumor, so I will start the list with me:
My name is Bill Boyce and I have depression. I am a father, athlete, artist, writer, musician, social activist, mental health professional and as sane and happy a person as you would ever want to meet. My mental health disorder does not define who I am.
-Written by Bill, STU Recovery Specialist
(The images above are African American males that have shared their experiences with mental health conditions: Kid Cudi, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, Wayne Brady, Jay-Z, and Brandon Marshall)
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