Stigmas and barriers that prevent black men from seeking therapy

Author’s note: The purpose of this article is to acknowledge and address the barriers that prevent black men from seeking out therapy as well as normalizing the prioritization of mental health treatment for black males.

According to Better Health website:

  • Stigma is when someone sees you in a negative way because of your mental illness.

  • Discrimination is when someone treats you in a negative way because of your mental illness.

  • Social stigma and discrimination can make mental health problems worse and stop a person from getting the help they need.


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

“43.8 million Americans will experience a mental illness episode in a given year.

&

Black people don’t always receive mental health care when it’s needed – about 1 in 3 receive care.”


For those who do not know me, I am a black male psychotherapist providing services through Beverly Therapists offices. While I provide services to a wide range of clientele, I personally relate to my black male clients, as I experience many of the same biases, social discrimination and exposure to stigmas. The following are the most common stigmas and barriers I’ve come across that prevent black men from seeking mental health treatment.


Being labeled as “crazy” and fear of being placed on medication

One of the fears that prevents people, and especially black men, from reaching out for mental health treatment are concerns that they’ll be labeled as “crazy,” and/or will be placed on psychotropic medication. First and foremost I want to acknowledge that these fears are very common and nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. The truth is all of us will be impacted by mental health issues at some point or time in our lives. Whether it is depression, anxiety, grief and loss issues, difficulty regulating mood, or various forms of trauma: it doesn’t mean that you’re crazy, it simply means you are human, you have feelings, and you may need a little extra help developing the appropriate strategies to cope with these issues.


When it comes to therapy, oftentimes medication is utilized as a last resort to treating mental health issues. Typically after a therapist completes the assessment portion of treatment within the first 3-4 sessions, then they will develop a treatment plan that will address your presenting problems. Therapists usually help you replace maladaptive coping strategies with more adaptive healthier ones to tackle the symptomology you are experiencing. For example, for my clients struggling with depression, I may encourage them to try exercise which is clinically proven to increase serotonin in the brain, effective in improving mood. I may help them practice positive affirmations and help them reframe their thinking from negative to positive, productive thoughts.


If these various forms of natural interventions are unsuccessful and their depression is becoming more severe, then we will talk about possibly introducing anti-depressant medication. Also noteworthy that the anti-depressant medication is not meant to be the sole form of treatment, its goal is to be a component in treatment. The long-term goal is that through therapy, the client’s depressive symptoms will improve enough that the client’s dosage can be decreased and/or be able to function without it


Black masculinity

Black masculinity is another huge deterrent that prevents black men from reaching out to a therapist. This whole idea of not wanting to be labeled as soft, weak, sensitive, and/or not wanting to be emotionally vulnerable. Us black men are socialized from a very early age to “tough it out,” “not show weakness,” “be a machine and push through”. And oftentimes it’s developed as a survival tactic. Many of us have grown up in households or lived in communities where if you showed weakness or vulnerability, you can get taken advantage of. This has caused us to lose touch with our emotions, suppress them, and push them to the back of our mind so we can get the job done.


I am the first to admit, as a therapist, this is something I still struggle with. This is because it goes against everything I’ve been taught my entire life by my father, coaches, friends. I’ve been in couples therapy with my wife, and our therapist has asked me “how did that make you feel” at times and it took several minutes to identify a feeling word, because I’m so used to suppressing it. I think it’s interesting when women are labeled as the emotional gender. In reality men experience the same exact emotions as women; they are just better at expressing them because they’ve been encouraged to do so. We as black men have to re-define this whole idea of masculinity that centers around “lack emotion, lack of vulnerability, and not showing that weakness or pain.” I think we do this by checking in with each other and creating spaces for us to express ourselves and feel our feelings without any judgement


According to the American Psychological Association only 4% of therapists are Black, and fewer than that are Black men.


Lack of Black therapists and limited availability

There might be men who are actively seeking a therapist but can’t find black male therapist in their area, or one that has availability. I’m almost always full and I feel bad because I have to turn away so many hurting people because I don’t have any availability. What is encouraging however is the Illinois government recently passed legislation that will continue to approve tele-therapy so instead of being confined to searching for a therapist in your geographical area, you can locate one within the state of Illinois and have video sessions.


The influence of the church and religion

First and foremost, I want to preface all my comments regarding the church by saying my dad is a pastor and I grew up in the church. In the black community, the church has historically provided a safe place for blacks to congregate, establish communityand worship God. Religion and the church play an integral role in providing guidance and healing the areas of our life that are broken. However, it should not be utilized as the sole form of treating serious mental health issues. For example, “praying away” abuse that you or a loved one has experienced during your childhood may not be an intensive enough intervention. I think what religion and church specifically can provide is a space for you to connect with others who may have experienced similar struggles and direct you to resources whether is a support group or therapist that will help directly address your issues. Therapists are healers and God put therapists on this earth to help you


Barbershop Therapy

Many Black men don’t seek professional therapy treatment because they feel like they are getting the social-emotional support they need in other spaces. One of them being the barbershop. I hear barbers and hair stylist say all the time, “I’m a therapist too.” I don’t take offense to it, because I think it comes from a good place. They genuinely want to help their clients and I’m sure a lot of the advice they give is helpful. But we have to be careful assuming what our barbers and hairstylists say is coming from un-biased perspective. A lot of advice in these settings comes from personal experience and may not have the same objectivity backed by clinical research as the advice given by a therapist. There are some serious clinical issues that your barber will not be able to help you with.


So what are the most important things that Black Men can do right now to help protect their own mental health?

Very simply, treat your mental health as seriously as you do your physical health. Don’t wait until there is something seriously wrong and/or you’re in crisis before you seek treatment. Make sure that you are checking in with yourself and being honest about how you’re feeling. Also, allow people in your life to care about you. If your friends and family members are constantlyconcerned about you, don’t brush it off and say “I’m fine or I’ll be alright”: listen to them. Often we are moving so fast that we are not attuned with ourselves and may not notice we’re slipping into a depressive state. It can take the observations of those close to you to point it out.

Also, on a weekly basis, make sure you’re scheduling time for self-care. This is something that is always preached but not practiced consistently. Between working, relationships/marriage, children, and issues with extended family many people don’t feel they have the time to take a break. You must prioritize yourself so you can be the best version of yourself for everyone else. This whole idea of putting on your oxygen mask before you put one on your child. You can’t pour from an empty cup. People often feel guilty or selfish about prioritizing themselves. It’s completely normal to feel this, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take care of yourself because of it. Last but not least, if all else fails, seek out a therapist.



Reference:

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/stigma-discrimination-and-mental-illness


About the author: Claude is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor from the Chicagoland area. Claude has been practicing since 2013 and specializes in black male issues, trauma, depresion, grief and loss, anxiety, anger-management, domestic violence, parenting issues, and sexual acting out issues. In addition Claude is trained in EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) Therapy.

Learn more about the author of this post: Claude King, LCPC