Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reclaiming Black Men’s Mental Health

The death of Michael Jackson has made me think a lot about the problem of mental illness in the black community.

On the one hand, Jackson's talents were indescribable. He mesmerized (including me) crowds across the globe with his singing and dancing for decades – I nearly broke my ankle trying to do that damn moonwalk back in the 80s.

Jackson made it all look so easy. Without a doubt, he is one of the greatest entertainers to have ever lived.

But, it has been nearly twenty years since Jackson had a bona fide hit record. His stardom and the public's obsession with his life, however, did not fade away.

Sadly though, Jackson stayed in the media for all the wrong reasons: the bizarre effects of numerous cosmetic surgeries, the child molestation charges, the designer surgical masks, the strange looking clothing, the brink of bankruptcy despite making hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, and dangling his infant son over a railing at an hotel, just to name a few.

Jackson was not simply a little odd; he was pretty damn strange, clearly someone who showed signs of a type of mental illness. Sadly, his talent was so prodigious many people downplayed the seriousness of his psychological problems. Anyone not a mega-superstar like Jackson would have been encouraged by family and friends to get help.

Looking back, it was really sad to watch his mental condition deteriorate over the years. One does not need a Ph.D. in psychology to see that Jackson was deeply traumatized as a child by years of emotional (and perhaps physical abuse) and the psychological effects of being conditioned to reject blackness in a racists, capitalists, society. His obsession with cosmetic surgery suggested a pathological hatred of blackness and a deep desire for recognition and acceptance by whites socially and professionally (he also married two white women and adopted three white children).

Michael Jackson's death should encourage us all to think more seriously about how mental illness affects the black community, especially black men.

Clare Xanthos of the Morehouse School of Medicine argues that black males from the time that they are young experience major challenges to their psychological well-being. "In addition to dealing with the physical, mental and emotional issues typically experienced during adolescence, adolescent African-American males are confronted with unique social and environmental stressors; they must frequently cope with racism and its associated stressors, including family stressors, educational stressors, and urban stressors," writes Xanthos.

In the black community, mental illness, especially depression, is rarely ever talked about; it is shrouded in secrecy. As a result, millions of black men either suffer in silence or end up getting help only in extreme circumstances – i.e., in emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and prisons.

John Head, in his landmark book, Standing In the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men, argues that beginning at an early age, black males are expected to embrace an idea of masculinity – a cool pose – that requires that they be silent about their feelings, suppress their emotions, shoulder their burdens alone, and refuse to show weakness.

The mental health of black men is also being damaged by racial oppression. Institutionalized racism affects mental health in at least three significant ways. First, it leads to lower social standing, limits access to key societal resources, and worsens one's living conditions. Second, physiological and psychological responses to social and environmental stressors lead to adverse developments in psychological well-being. Finally, the embrace of negative stereotypes can cause negative self-evaluations that have harmful effects on mental health.

Unfortunately, few public commentators or friends and family members participating in the chat fest about Michael Jackson's life (and death) are talking candidly about his mental health.

I truly believe that had his psychological well-being been addressed a long time ago, the world might not have lost this incredibly talented man.

Further, I also think that black men who experience, for example, bouts of depression, would have benefited immensely from seeing someone like Jackson publically acknowledge that they too need help.