By Alexa Spencer
Black men are just as human as everyone else. They feel a range of emotions, dream of living a good life, and experience ups and downs — yet, they’re not always supported in expressing their feelings.
Because society enforces the idea that men must neglect their emotional and mental well-being to be considered “manly,” many Black men suffer in silence. Or worse, with Black men being four times more likely to commit suicide than Black women, they die without receiving the care they deserve.
“What ends up happening for most Black males is that we start to internalize that pain,” says Brandon Jones, a psychotherapist who specializes in intergenerational trauma and adverse childhood experiences.
Jones says Black males learn to internalize their pain at a young age, “And that pain starts to manifest itself in anger or a drinking habit or drug habit or abusiveness towards other people because we haven’t figured out how to — in a healthy way or therapeutic way — address some of that pain,” he says.
For Black boys, in particular, Jones says sports often become an outlet for anger when there are no healthy systems in place.
As a boy who was abused by his stepfather and neglected by his biological father, Jones says he used football to cope.
“I literally would try to hurt people. Like, my goal was to send somebody home in an ambulance every game. Now that’s kind of psychotic when you think about it, but that was me on the peewee football level,” he says.
As opposed to the biases about Black boys being angrier and less innocent than other children, Jones notes that they actually have something to be upset about.
Like other fatherless males who grew up with “father hunger,” he says he was “pissed about everything because no one sees me. No one’s helping me. No one’s teaching me how to tie a tie. No one’s teaching me how to shave. No one’s teaching me what men should have, like a watch and a wallet.”
When left untreated, these traumas not only affect a boy’s development, they also affect how he lives as an adult.
Like Jones, George Johnson, an entrepreneur, author, and star basketball player, had a breakdown as an adult before eventually going to therapy to address his past traumas.
It took going to the gym and being unable to lift a bench press bar for the lifelong athlete to realize he needed help.
“I thought something physically was wrong with me, but after going to the doctor and getting an assessment, I was depressed. And so my body was breaking down internally, not physically,” he recalls.
Johnson grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where poverty, violence, and family dysfunction were normalized. In his recently released memoir, “Double Crossed,” he speaks about how basketball kept him away from illegal activity, yet his mental health was still affected by his environment.
He went to college to play basketball while other people he knew went to prison. But after becoming a million-dollar entrepreneur post-graduation, Johnson found himself in the middle of a federal investigation with two of his brothers, who he says used him as a “crutch” to help themselves out.
“I got so far away from just the inner city or the hood, or where I’m from, I still ended up being caught up in the same traps and loopholes like my peers and my family back home,” Johnson says about spending the last four years in a legal battle.
The ordeal with his family took a toll on his health, but Johnson beat the odds by choosing to get help. Only 26.4% of Black men, ages 18 to 44, who experience daily feelings of anxiety or depression are likely to have used mental health services, compared to 45.4% of white men; according to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And now, as a Black man who found success in therapy, he’s seeking to encourage Black inner-city youth to seek support. Black men are even coming up to Johnson while he’s out to share that his book helped them consider therapy.
“I was in the club a couple of weeks ago, and this guy came to me in the club — and he was like ‘yo, I saw an ad and I bought your book.’ And he was like, ‘Bro, I’m in therapy now because of your book,’” Johnson says.
Ultimately, as he speaks up about conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, he hopes to educate the Black community on healthy ways to cope.
For the Black boy who is struggling with mental illness but isn’t getting the care he needs, Jones says he would try to help him understand what grief and forgiveness are, among other things.
Black boys need to learn “how to strategize and have plans and a vision for the future,” Jones says, “because one thing that trauma does is it makes everything about the moment. You’re not thinking about what’s going to happen a year from now. You’re just trying to survive what’s going on right in front of you.”
And, adds Jones, “ the last thing I would do is I would try to help him define what are healthy relationships for him, so he can seek those out because trying to navigate this by yourself at 12, 14-years-old is extremely scary.”
To access mental health resources for Black boys and men, visit Therapy for Black Men, BEAM Organization, AAKOMA Project, and Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. The suicide prevention lifeline is available 24 hours at 800-273-8255.