Mental Health and Men of Color: Addressing Common Misconceptions
The prevailing thinking is that men simply don’t express their emotions, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The discrepancy lies in how we define the term “express” as a man may choose to navigate frustration and anger in a quieter and more reserved manner or in a more visibly angry, explicit way. Both are valid means of expressing emotion. All men are different and operate along a spectrum of emotional expression.
To identify solutions to mental health issues that plague men, it is of the utmost importance that we take the time to understand the misconceptions and stereotypes around men and mental health. This blog openly challenges four myths associated with the mental health of men, with a particular focus on boys and men of color. Hopefully, these words will provide a moment of reflection and challenge the current ways of thinking when it comes to how our mental health care system can improve mental health outcomes for boys and men of color and for men in general.
Myth 1: Personal weakness is the reason why mental health issues arise in boys and men of color
Truth: Mental health issues may arise secondary to biological/individual, environmental, and/or genetic factors. The environment, life experiences, such as trauma or history of abuse, and family histories of mental conditions can shape the mental health of boys and men of color.1 Racial stress and discrimination are known to raise hormone levels and cause long-lasting effects on the brain. The prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus are all affected by changes in glucocorticoids and pro-inflammatory cytokines. In excess, these increased levels may lead to poorer mental health outcomes. Furthermore, other stress responses in the brain in combination with other changes may also contribute to mental illness.2
Personal weakness is never the cause of mental health issues in boys and men of color, nor is it with anyone else that experiences issues impacting their mental health.
Myth 2: Boys and men of color are less likely to engage in mental health services because they don’t want to.
Truth: As a result of the economy, stigma, socioeconomic status, and health insurance, some boys and men of color are less likely to seek mental health services.3 Stigma is one of the leading explanations for their lack of participation in mental health services, whether the stigma is experienced, anticipated, or internalized. Unfortunately, the rate of boys and men of color that are insured and able to receive mental health services is much lower than the White population, and therefore finding help for mental health services is more difficult.4
Mental healthcare clinicians can facilitate healing the inequalities experienced by boys and men of color by participating in identity-affirming therapy, or therapy that recognizes Black identity through group identification, racial ideology, and public regard to lessen the consequences of discrimination.5
Myth 3: Boys and men of color often “suffer in silence” by choosing to “bottle up” their emotions.
Truth: While some men, of course, willingly hold their emotions in, not all men do. Often, men express their emotions and we as clinicians (and society as a whole) misidentify them entirely. We must be more attentive and conscientious toward how boys and men of color may express feelings, which may manifest in more subdued and indirect ways. Perhaps this is the way some men effectively process uncomfortable and difficult emotions. Subtle changes in demeanor and attitude should be noted and recognized as outward expressions of emotion aren’t always helpful or appropriate. Emotional expression, whether explicit or implicit, may be a sign of a man in need of assistance, warranting both our empathy and compassion.
Myth 4: Boys and men of color “need to speak up” to receive the mental health treatment that many may need.
Truth: While it is true that boys and men of color should always be encouraged to voice their needs about pursuing assistance for their own emotional health, we also need to make sure that we are better-identifying signs of overwhelming stress in boys and men of color for the purpose of offering a helping hand. It’s our job as mental health professionals to be able to identify nontraditional signs and symptoms of stress and mental illness in boys and men of color and educate society at large on these symptoms as well. Lindsey & Marcell6 found that there are three barriers that prevent help-seeking among boys and men of color : the individual level (isolation), the social level (interaction with others), and the community level (negative beliefs about mental health care.) To better engage boys and men of color in mental health services, researchers argue that there must be interventions at all levels to help motivate them to seek help when needed.6
What to look for and how to help
The following is a list of some signs and symptoms in boys and men of color that may possibly indicate poor mental health:
- Physical complaints, such as headaches, G.I. discomfort, and body aches
- Engaging in escapist behaviors, such as excessive working or excessive gaming
- Difficulty with concentration and focus
- Increased substance use
- Excessive risk-taking/impulsive behaviors
- Increased isolation and/or withdrawal socially
- Increased irritability/anger
- Increased physical aggression or violent behavior
To further support the mental health of boys and men of color , consider taking the following next steps:
- Attempt to understand the boys and men of color experience through conversation and research
- Reflect on the support you are providing (or not providing) to the boys and men of color in your own life
- Be aware of and identify the more subtle signs of possible poor mental health
- Help identify and fortify effective social supports for boys and men of color
- Help escalate care if needed to a trusted mental health provider
While Men’s Mental Health Month in June brings important and much-needed awareness, it is often overlooked or treated like an afterthought. Boys and men of color represent a heterogenous group full of different skin tones, cultural experiences, and expressions of their own unique sense of ethnic identity. Our evolving mental health care system must continue to work to understand and create treatment options that meet the mental health needs of boys and men of color while also focusing on effective preventative strategies to foster healthy development.
1.SAMHSA. (2023). Mental Health Myths and Facts. SAMHSA. Retrieved July 18, 2023 from https://www.samhsa.gov/mental-health/myths-and-facts
2.Berger, M., & Sarnyai, Z. (2015). “More than skin deep”: stress neurobiology and mental health consequences of racial discrimination. Stress, 18(1), 1-10.
3.Rivera, K. J., Zhang, J. Y., Mohr, D. C., Wescott, A. B., & Pederson, A. B. (2021). A Narrative Review of Mental Illness Stigma Reduction Interventions Among African Americans in The United States. J Ment Health Clin Psychol, 5(2), 20-31. https://doi.org/10.29245/2578-2959/2021/2.1235
4.National Center for Health Statistics. (2019). National Health Interview Survey. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),. Retrieved July 18, 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis/shs/tables.htm
5.Gómez, J. M. (2015). Microaggressions and the Enduring Mental Health Disparity:Black Americans at Risk for Institutional Betrayal. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(2), 121-143.
6.Lindsey, M. A., & Marcell, A. V. (2012). “We’re Going Through a Lot of Struggles That People Don’t Even Know About”:The Need to Understand African American Males’ Help-Seeking for Mental Health on Multiple Levels. American Journal of Men's Health, 6(5), 354-364.
7. Ward, E. C., Wiltshire, J. C., Detry, M. A., & Brown, R. L. (2013). African American men and women's attitude toward mental illness, perceptions of stigma, and preferred coping behaviors. Nurs Res, 62(3), 185-194. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNR.0b013e31827bf533