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Black Men and the Stigma of Seeking Mental Health Help

 

You Got Mad Issues – It may be time for Therapy!

By Maco L. Faniel

Neo soul artist, Angie Stone puts to lyrics what many Black women have been thinking about Black men for years when she said “you got mad issues, and you tend to refuse every opportunity to right your wrong”.  Because the women in our lives, who know us so intimately and care for us so deeply, can see when we are hurting or responding out of pain.  But Black men young and old are walking around with anger, hurt, and stress which is literally sucking the joy out our lives through high blood pressure, impotence, fatigue, alcoholism, and many other physical and emotional manifestations as the result of poor mental health.  However, many of us stubbornly refuse to get the mental health help that is needed to be better men – husbands, fathers, boyfriends, or just plain ole emotionally whole.

No, it’s just not “Crazy Uncle Joe” in the backroom of your granny’s house who desperately needs mental health help, but it’s also those brothers out there who seem to have everything together.  They are suffering alone, bottling up their emotions, or self medicating.  And the ones who depend on them and love them dearly are suffering too.

But why, when mental health help is available?

When I sat down with Dr. Verdi Lethermon (Director of the Psychological Services Division for Houston Police Department and owner of Lethermon & Associates), she said that Black men are reluctant to get mental health help because “Black men have been historically misunderstood, misjudged, and oppressed.  Black men have tried to walk a fine line of being assertive and understood without being aggressive.  Black men tend not to show their weaknesses because of this.  In therapy you have to be vulnerable and let your feelings out and address that.”

And letting feelings out is something that Black men were taught not to do at a very early age.  We can all remember what was said to little girls when they fell down and scraped their knees, “aw baby, come here, it’s gon’ be alright.”  However, the speech was much different when a little boy fell down and began to cry, “boy stop crying like a little girl, get yo’ a** up and walk it off”.  And at those moments, little boys were trained to be grown men who can’t express emotions and are afraid of being vulnerable.  But Dr. Lethermon believes that negative emotions have to be dealt with because if not “they eventually come out in an uncontrollable way and then we all pay the prices”.

We know that Black men have been used as scientific and medical guinea pigs from the slave ship to Tuskegee.  And while this truth exists, it should not preclude us from getting the mental health help needed.  Dr. Lethermon says that when Black men refuse to get mental health help “they tend to be re-victimized by the pain and stress in their lives and continue to victimize others”

So, now may be the right time for Black men to get the mental health help needed!  But it takes other Black men and Black people in general to break the stigma about seeing a psychologist and to share mental health challenges.  We should take advantage of our oral tradition of storytelling to tell the truth about our mental health.  In the same way we ask for a good barber, we should be asking for a good therapist if we really need one. 

But how do you know that you need mental health help?  Dr. Lethermon says that some of the symptoms are when “you find yourself losing control in areas of your life that you typically have under control, or if a person finds their self slipping into a dark hole and removing self from people, stuff, and routines that you used to do.”

And if you ignore the symptoms, trouble is around the corner. “Anger rises to the surface, because anger is a safe feeling – instead of the real feeling of fear, inadequacy, emotional, stressed, overwhelmed, or powerless – and instead of looking at self that individual blames other people,” Leatherman says.

Fellas, it is not okay to bottle up your feelings or hold back the tears –your issues are real and the way that you feel about them are real also. Jesus wept, Job lamented, David sought counsel, and the O’Jays cried together with their women.  So, instead of counseling with brown liquor, with another joint, another woman, or with ESPN – maybe it’s time to call a therapist to talk out these issues.

Ladies can assist in helping the Black men in their lives get the mental health help needed.  Dr Leatherman says that mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives can “invite him to consider therapy or to a therapist out of your love for him to get him to take care of himself.”  Women have great influence on how a man handles his mental health issues – they can be an advocate or a hindrance.  Leatherman says that “sometimes women inadvertently stifle a man’s effort to express his feelings by the way women respond to him when he expresses his feelings. Sometimes women minimize his feelings or are overwhelmed and don’t want to hear them, and sometimes women invalidate them.  And this can prevent future vulnerability and his willingness to get help, but sometimes they (women) are fighting back.  I encourage women to take a look at themselves also – are they hurting or helping the man in their life express his feelings openly.”

So what happens when Black men get the mental health help needed? “It’s pretty amazing”, says Dr. Leatherman, “They feel better about themselves.  And that feeling ripples to everybody else – particularly wives and children- they become role models and become the heads that they should be. Then the wives and children are more willing to submit and follow.” 

Jill Scott may have said it best when she said “We Need You!” Black women need us, our children need us, and we need ourselves to be whole and emotionally stable. But that cannot happen if we continue to represent false manhood by being afraid to be vulnerable and get the mental health help that some of us so desperately need.  Dr. Leatherman says this to Black men, “It takes a lot of courage to come to therapy, everybody won’t do it, but it is one of the best gifts that you can give yourself in life.”  And the next generations are counting on you.  Our race needs help, so help us God.  Future generations are counting on Black men.

Do you have the courage?

 

Note: Dr. Verdi Leatherman is the author of the upcoming book, When God Speaks People Who Hear are Healed!

Faniel is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men's Magazine.

 

This article was published on Thursday 22 October, 2009.
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