The historic election of former President Barack Obama had a positive impact on the mental health of African-American men.
Mental Health and Politics: The Correlation for African-American Men
Has politics ever stressed you out?
One minute the world is your oyster and the next minute the country takes a new political path and you become nervous as all get out.
Well, a Rice University study reported that sociopolitical shifts have an effect on the health of African-Americans.
The mental health of African-American men improved under former President Barack Obama.
“Specifically, hope and optimism spike when members of an aggrieved group believe whatever injustice they face will be alleviated,” the study reported. “For example, during the 1960s in the United States, the passage of landmark legislation pronouncing racial segregation of public spaces and accommodations illegal was a moment of symbolic empowerment for Blacks. Accompanying the legislation was anticipation that the experience of full citizenship would soon cross the color line. However, we suspect the health significance of symbolic empowerment is short-lived because racial disparities in lifestyles and life chances remain durable and reinforce each other.”
Lead researcher Tony Brown, a sociology professor at Rice, said that many African-American men experienced “symbolic empowerment” after the election of former President Obama, feeling increased hope and optimism.
Brown surveyed African-American men on their stress levels, depression and emotional issues 30 days before Obama’s election and 30 days after his election in 2008.
An example of the questions asked is, “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?”
The research showed that on average, those African-American men experienced four bad mental health days before Obama’s historic election as the first African-American president of the United States.
On the contrary, those same African-American men experienced three bad mental health days directly following that election win for Obama over late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Brown said, “The study’s findings are important because we do not fully understand what factors protect mental health. Specifically, the findings demonstrate that sociopolitical shifts matter for the health of Black men and that everyday conditions of life act as social detriments of health.”
The sociology professor said that sociologists often research mental health after a person faces a detrimental experience like facing racism, discrimination and/or violence.
For example, African-American men experience a 0.14-day increase in bad mental health days after a nearby shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a police officer.
However, the Rice University survey chose to look at mental health after a positive experience.
The election of Obama was positive to the majority of the African-American population based on voting patterns.
“This is one major reason we pursued this study—we wanted to know if there were any health implications from this momentous occasion in U.S. history,” the Rice study reported.
Despite bad mental health days decreasing for African-American men after the election of the first African-American president, African-American women experienced the opposite of their male counterparts.
African-American women experienced 4.6 bad mental health days 30 days prior to Obama’s election.
Thirty days after the election, African-American women reported experiencing five bad mental health days.
In a press release, Brown said, “Black women could have faced an internal conflict over not being able to vote for Hillary Clinton, a woman. They could also have been concerned over the uptick in death threats just 10 days following Obama’s election, worrying about the new president-elect in the same way they would worry about their own husbands, fathers or sons. They might also have been concerned over how President Obama would deal with discrimination against Black men versus Black women.”
Furthermore, Brown said that African-American women might have worried about any possible backlash the African-American community would experience as a result of the game-changing 2008 presidential election.
The press release stated that the survey data came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
Brown encourages researches to look at the effect of the 2020 presidential election on mental health.
“Groups of voters are symbolically empowered or disempowered by the biography, blind spots and biases of those winning presidential elections,” said Brown.
Alex Solazzo, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and Rice University sociology professor Bridget Gorman co-authored the study.
For decades, and perhaps even centuries, a stigma existed in the African-American community when it came to mental health, especially amongst African-American men.
Fathers often taught their sons to “man up” and handle whatever adversity life threw at them without talking about it.
Shedding tears was frowned upon in many African-American communities.
Now, the shame of seeking mental health help is not as taboo anymore with celebrities like radio personality and author Charlemagne tha God openly discussing his struggles with mental health.
Many predominantly African-American barbershops and salons have started taking their role as a safe space for African-American men to express their struggles in life more seriously in recent years.
“It’s a place where clients can come unload. Barbers become therapists. We hear about clients’ issues. If clients trust you with their hair, then they trust you with what’s going on inside their mind,” said barber Stephan “Step the Barber” Swearingen of Plush Midtown Barber and Beauty Salon in Atlanta.
Mental health advocate Lorenzo Lewis founded the Arkansas-based nonprofit organization The Confess Project to help African-American men overcome depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
He often goes to barbershops to tell his story and to train barbers to handle their clients’ mental health struggles via workshops.
“The workshop was pretty intense and intriguing because it caught some of the patrons off guard, but not in a negative way,” said Plush Midtown patron Courtney Jackson. “It was something that was new to the customers, but it was eye-opening because they were able to hear from someone who works in and around that field. Everyone was able to express themselves and hear different perspectives from other patrons that were there…It was full of positive energy and feedback.”
With the 2020 presidential election in full gear and the world grappling with COVID-19, mental health issues will remain on the front of people’s minds for the foreseeable future.
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