Why Black Men Are Transforming The Stigma About Depression & Therapy
William Ketchum III explains why more and more black men are speaking about mental illness, depression and even being open about therapy.
Black men have historically had to adhere to skewed standards of masculinity, with expectations to simply suck it up and get through it. Men aren’t supposed to cry. But who’s a bigger man than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? The 6-foot-5 inch professional wrestler-turned-movie star with the million-dollar smile revealed recently that he suffered from depression as an adult, traumatized after seeing his mother attempt suicide in front of him when he was 15-years-old.
“I reached a point where I didn’t want to do a thing or go anywhere,” Johnson, told the U.K.-based publication The Express. “I was crying constantly.” He also tweeted about it, and — get this — actually suggested for his followers who deal with depression to get help.
Got tons of responses to this. Thank you. We all go thru the sludge/shit and depression never discriminates. Took me a long time to realize it but the key is to not be afraid to open up. Especially us dudes have a tendency to keep it in. You’re not alone
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) April 2, 2018
Hey man I get it. We all go thru the sludge and shit. Stay strong and make sure you’re talking to good people about it. Us men have a tendency to hold it in. No shame in getting help and wanting to be better.
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) April 2, 2018
Johnson isn’t the only one: black men are depressed, and more and more of us are becoming comfortable with admitting it.
Artists have always spoken about mental illness in their music, rapping and singing about using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate themselves from depression and paranoia that comes from their time on the block and living in poverty. “Listed as a manic depressive with extreme paranoia,” DMX rapped on “Fuckin’ Wit D.” “I want to just slit my wrist and end this bullshit / throw the magnum to my head,” The Notorious B.I.G. said on “Suicidal Thoughts.” It goes back as far as Scarface on The Geto Boys’ “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me” in 1991, and as recent as any Future song where he relies on lean to get through his lost love.
But there has definitely been a move forward in recent years: black men are speaking about depression in even more definitive ways, using medical terms and seeking support from their fans. One of the earliest examples that come to mind was in 2015 when Wale told Billboard about depression that stemmed from the pileup of not being where he wanted to be in his career, constant hate on social media, and tragedies in his family. “I was depressed not being where I wanna be in my career when I’ve put the work in,” Wale said. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was drinking all day and I didn’t have anyone to go to. I couldn’t fight it.” Kanye West rapped about his usage of antidepressants on “FML,” where he says, “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than this nigga when he off his Lexapro.” Bow Wow recently announced that his next album would be titled Edicius, or the word “suicide” spelled backward. The title comes seven years after, in an interview with Russell Simmons, the rapper-actor said that he considered suicide as a result of his career as a child entertainer moving too fast. Logic even made a song “1-800-273-8255,” named after the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and saw the record get two Grammy nominations and go four-times Platinum.
But while some of the entertainers have come out to speak about their depression on their own volition, others have done so involuntarily. Capital STEEZ, the beloved member of Joey Bada$$’s Pro Era collective, died by suicide in 2012. After rumors swirled in tabloids and blogs in 2016, Kid Cudi confirmed that he checked into rehab after battling “depression and suicidal urges.” “I am not at peace,” Cudi wrote in an emotional letter on his Facebook page.
Millenials and younger people are coming up in a social media era, that arguably both fuels depression and gives black men the tools to deal with it. The information overload of social media — whether it’s friends’ sanitized profiles that make people think they’re not successful enough, or the constant images of police killing unarmed black men and women — may push more black people to the edge. But social media has also given a platform to help people with similar experiences share what they’re going through with each other. It’s closely even getting to the point where we’re beginning to pinpoint depression in celebrities and in fictional characters.
the blackest thing about #atlantafx is earn’s undiagnosed depression.
— Scott Heath (@rscottheath) March 23, 2018
I know we clown Tyrese, Bow Wow and others, but these men really need to check in on their mental health. https://t.co/dS6q5dYhxy
— George M Johnson (@IamGMJohnson) March 29, 2018
There’s also the constant stress of racism. Black people deal with systemic racism every day, whether through mistreatment by police and the criminal justice system, housing discrimination, or mistreatment of their children at school. Queer and trans black men deal with homophobia and transphobia as well. Black men have always dealt with these things, but now we have social media to share our stories, and access to studies to share stats. Instead of expecting ourselves to be invincible, we’re beginning to see the mental wear and tear that bigotry can have — and suddenly, the need for therapy isn’t out of the question. We see that depression is a reasonable result of dealing with the shit that we go through.
I shared my personal story with depression in a previous Okayplayer piece, “A Different #LawrenceHive: How ‘Insecure’ Made One of TV’s Best Depictions of Black Mental Health,” and had done so previously on my social media platforms. Part of why I felt comfortable doing so was because after beginning to go to therapy, I felt like I was beginning to learn how to manage my depression, and it felt like an accomplishment and part of my story. Some black men have stories about how they’ve risen out of poverty, or how they’ve become sober after years of addiction; while I wouldn’t say that I’ve been cured of my depression, I’ve learned how to work through it and not allow it to permanently defeat me. But I also, perhaps subconsciously, was helped by the knowledge that other black men were coming forward, too.
I also thought sharing my story would help people, and I was right. Once I began to share my own experiences with depression, other people — black men and otherwise — began to reach out to me privately to speak about their own depression. Some of them would ask for help finding a therapist. Others would simply be reaching out to me to express gratitude for me sharing what I’ve been through, to let them know that they aren’t alone. I also proactively help people on my own: I’ll reach out to my networks to find mental health professionals for people who I know are looking in different areas, or drop a line to someone who I see showing signs. And thankfully, others have done the same for me as well.
We still have a long way to go. Only some of us are real mental health professionals, but we can still do a better job of actually identifying the symptoms of depression. While phrases like “mental health” and “depression” are being used more regularly, for some people it’s words on a screen more than it is a concrete reality. And some of us still deal with the stigma (see Chad’s “that’s two rooms: one for you, one for your feelings” quip in this last season of Insecure, or Troy Ave’s disrespectful words about CAPITAL STEEZ, as examples). But we’re speaking out more than ever.