Black health and wellness is the theme of Black History Month for 2022 and this includes mental health, which isn’t necessarily a topic often spoken about in Black communities.
Give an Hour hosted a conversation between Dr. Dwayne Buckingham, who has a doctorate in human services, community and social service and is a licensed psychotherapist, Showtime Shawn Porter, a two-time welterweight champion, and Allen Simmons, a marine combat veteran, author and motivational speaker. During this discussion we learned a little about some of the challenges Black men face when it comes to their mental health and some of the coping mechanisms they utilize.
Their individual experiences may vary, but the common thread we see is that finding a way to discuss mental health is important not only to each individual but to the health of entire generations.
“If Black men address their personal mental health, they have the ability to influence generations to come by changing communities and families,” said Buckingham. “We are fighting in our own heads and not getting support.”
Simmons shares that by “fixing himself” he is a better father, husband and community member. And Porter’s strength in the “fight” translates to his life, too, claiming he is changing the narrative learned from his own father to how he is teaching his sons today. “I’m gonna let our boys cry. It’s okay to cry,” he said. “It’s human nature to cry. You can’t fight those tears.”
Barriers to accessing mental health services for Black men are real and present challenges that make an already difficult time that much harder for those seeking help. According to Buckingham, there is a stigma in the Black community to needing mental health care, which leads to a fear of being vulnerable and not reaching out for assistance.
“Analyzing our race as a people, we have to be strong and not show weakness,” said Porter. “Men don’t know how to be vulnerable.” He stresses the importance of not being afraid to be vulnerable when you need to be and using discernment to figure out who can be there to help you.
Many in the Black community who are Christians seek help and guidance from God. When mental health providers don’t understand this culture, it can pose a barrier. This was the case for Simmons who was almost misdiagnosed due to a lack of cultural competency and understanding.
All agree that going it alone isn’t the right path. According to Simmons, finding someone to lean on in the Black community is no easy task. But identifying a “battle buddy” is key. And finding the right someone can make all the difference.
For Porter, this is true inside the ring and out. “The worst way to have a problem is to have a problem and go through it alone,” he said. “You’re only as strong as your team.”
How to Cope
Coping with these challenges and barriers isn’t always easy. Learning to choose your words wisely is a great first step to providing help. Try not to trigger defensiveness. Rather, find a way to say “let me help you” or “you’re being too strong” instead of “you’re being selfish” when someone is struggling emotionally.
Along those same lines, young Black boys hear “boys don’t cry” or “be strong,” which actually results in them building walls and shutting down. While young Black girls are taught to be vulnerable and emotionally resilient. We have to remember children are sponges and words are important. The things we say shape their perspectives of the world around them.
Spirituality is a very important coping mechanism for all three men. Simmons credits poetry, faith and friends to his mental health journey. “Poetry gave me the power and allowed me to speak to my trauma. It gave me an excuse to be me.” he said. “I chose to speak out about my trauma instead of hiding from it.”
Porter has a whole bevy of people helping him. He regularly practices meditation and Bikram yoga, and counts his spiritual team, boxing team, family and friends among his crew. “I don’t do this alone,” he said.
Buckingham suggests you need to figure out what works for you by understanding the difference between thoughts and emotions. Be able to distinguish how you think versus how you feel. He encourages you to process your pain, trauma and hurt, “Speak to your pain, don’t hide in it.”
Beating the Odds
It’s important to learn how to identify, address and overcome your mental health challenges. And recognizing that mental health IS health is half the battle. So, to honor this year’s theme for Black History Month, check in with yourself and your friends and assess your emotional well-being by learning the Five Signs of Emotional Suffering and the Healthy Habits of Emotional Well-Being. Find your people and ask for help when you need it. Be vulnerable.
In closing, Simmons’ mantra rings true, “There is no ‘what if?’ Never stop. Never quit. Repeat.”