Self-Care and Mental Health as a Black Man in America

“Things that seem like extremes for other people are normal for me.”

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Working with a therapist has become increasingly common in the United States, and the stigma of therapy is fading. However, this acceptance appears to be moving at different rates for different people, at least according to the statistics.

While 48 percent of U.S. women sought mental health services in 2017, only 35 percent of men did, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Additionally, 48 percent of white adults received mental health services, but only 31 percent of Black adults did. A combination of factors might contribute to lower rates among Black men. For example, cultural values, gender norms, and lack of trust in the healthcare system can all impact one's willingness to try therapy.

Furthermore, when you don't see your peers attending therapy, or when you can't find therapists who look like you, it's easy to concude that therapy isn't "meant for" you. This is something Gregory Alexander knows personally. When his wife April began seeing a therapist to deal with the stress of a chronic illness, Greg was skeptical at first.

Greg’s Journey in Therapy

According to Greg, he was initially opposed to therapy because he had had a negative experience himself. His first therapist was a poor fit, and he wrote off the practice as unhelpful or unproductive. (Learn more here about how to tell if your therapist is the right fit.)

He started to have second thoughts when he saw the strides April was making. The changes he witnessed inspired him to rethink his opinions on therapy, and to share this experience with others. In 2018, he penned a guest post on April’s blog titled “Three Things I’ve Learned Since My Wife Started Therapy.” Much to his surprise, the post resonated with many of April’s readers.

Realizing the Need for Mental Health Support

Greg started to recognize some of the trauma he carried with him every day. As he started to prioritize his mental health, he realized this unspoken trauma had affected him without realizing it.

“There are a lot of things I personally dealt with growing up that I’ve internalized,” says Greg. “Someone could misinterpret your actions, and you can go to jail. Someone could misinterpret your actions and you can get shot. Things that seem like extremes for other people are normal for me.”

These negative experiences can have obvious effects on mental health, but researchers are also uncovering a strong link between mental and physical health. Trauma, it seems, has real effects on the human body. Studies suggest that people facing discrimination or economic hardships often face higher levels of chronic stress. In turn, this contributes to the health disparities among racial groups, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Self-Care vs. Selfishness

Greg believes one of the reasons Black men are less likely to seek therapy is due to the culture of being a provider within their families and relationships. “[Black men] don’t have time to deal with emotions. We neglect ourselves and our personal feelings,” says Greg.

As a result, Greg believes Black men often put their own needs and feelings "on the backburner" and don't communicate their own needs. For example, as Greg witnessed his wife deal with the pain of endometriosis, he felt extra pressure to de-prioritize himself.

Unfortunately, this effort to take care of others and ignore the self can be detrimental, particularly for people living with the stress of racism and other traumas. When he tried therapy again (with a different therapist), Greg found that it gave him space to uncover and verbalize some of this trauma. Now, he and April make an effort to find the right balance of helping each other without de-prioritizing themselves.

Finding the Right Fit

Many Black Americans feel more comfortable—and often find more success—with a Black therapist. It's true that therapists in the U.S. are predominately white, but the number of Black psychologists has nearly doubled between 2007 to 2016, according to the APA. Additionally, you can find directories that list Black therapists in your area, such as TruCircle.

Greg and April both encourage others to find a therapist that helps you. “You don’t have to stick to the one person, if you feel like you’re not getting the service you need. You can find someone else,” Greg says.

Learn more about how April and Greg practice self-care as a couple here.