Given that suicide is a serious public health issue and male mental health is in crisis, it is refreshing to see an increase in the numbers of discussions on the topic. However, the deafening silence on black male mental health is disturbing.
There is over representation of people from the African and African-Caribbean diaspora in mental health services. They are also more likely to be admitted into psychiatric hospitals and experience restrains, so if we are serious about improving mental health equity for all men the discourse needs to be steered towards the specificities of black men’s mental wellbeing.
Mental illness is subjective, and it is the society that comes up with the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behaviours or deemed disturbances. It also shapes the attitudes to those behaviours and reactions to them. Hence taking a one size fits all approach is unhelpful as it inevitably neglects the cultural impositions including identity politics, and the social structures and power relations that impact on the lives of black men.
The body is the site through which meaning based on cultural expressions and prevailing ideologies is evolved. Therefore, the way people experience their reality, and how they respond to their lived experiences, are in some ways rooted in the cultural configurations that been informed by historical legacies. It is not hard to understand how the disparity in racial equality, political empowerment and state justices will impact on black mens’ experience of mental health.
So why is it that the all-important demographic characteristics and the overlapping and interdependent intersectionality are so often missing from the discourse on male mental health. Issues such as race, social stratification, gender, sexuality, and religion all have differing meanings when ascribed to the black community. For example, sexual orientation and gender identity challenges notions of black masculinity and in black communities homosexuality is less tolerated. This engendered undermining of black men and the internalised oppression due to the inability to fulfil the ideology of black masculinity contributes to declining mental health (Lemelle & Battle 2004).
Shouldn’t those meanings be applied to the social relational understanding of mental health?
Credit is due for the effort being put into addressing male mental health, especially because suicide is the number one cause of death of young men under the age of 35 and that 72% of the male prison population have two or more mental disorders (Men’s Health Forum). However, the disparity in the lived experiences for black males requires further exploration that goes to the heart of the intricacies and dynamics of intersectionality. That will then allow for a greater understanding of the negatively constructed other which contributes to the over representation of black men in mental health institutions.
Discussions on black mental health ought not to obscure the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. The historical social construct of black masculinity for men who were forced to resist the powers of domination and renegotiate their identity is one of stoicism and fortitude in the face of adversity – protecting oneself by not showing vulnerability and seeking support. This intergenerational dilemma is still currently being played out.
The socioeconomic antecedents of poverty, criminal justice, housing, education, employment and physical health also play a part in the experiences for black men. While they are not mutually exclusive to black men, the way in which they are experienced and lived can be unique.
The call is for an integrated approach to mental health which expands the conceptual frameworks to effectively recognise the intersectionality of black men, and the cultures and sub-cultures that influence their lived experiences.