Invisible Man: Black Men & PTSD

01 Sep 2000 --- Worried businessman --- Image by ©LWA-Stephen Welstead/CORBIS

By Daunte Henderson, BlackDoctor.org

Black men have an unbelievable weight on their shoulders. The stress comes in every direction on a daily basis. The impact of walking down the street in your own neighborhood can be a traumatic experience in itself. You don’t know who to trust. You would love to trust your brother who shares the same pigment, but he’s bound by that same fear that has you tiptoeing on eggshells just to walk to work or school. It’s hard to trust the police because you don’t know if they’ll protect or serve. And sometimes the trauma happens in your own home. The dynamics of Black household relations can often put a strain on the mind of a young Black man who will grow up with this thing we call post traumatic disorder (PTSD).

This disorder is developed after being exposed to something that is highly stressful, scary or dangerous. This exposure doesn’t have to happen directly to the person with PTSD. For instance, seeing your friend be killed, watching a car accident and even being in the home of domestic abuse can all trigger PTSD in a person. Marked by frequent flashbacks, hallucinations, mood changes and avoidance behavior, PTSD is a disease that gets overlooked in our community.

Black men are taught to be macho and keep it all inside. The “Be a Man” motto has a lot of our men suffering in silence with PTSD. The symptoms can vary from person to person according to Dr. Tasha Holland-Kornegay of the Outpatient Center.

“It can be intrusive symptoms such as thoughts and emotions that intrude into his life and causes him to re-experience trauma such as flashbacks, nightmares, and sudden feelings of terror. Another way of knowing is his attempt to avoid re-experiencing trauma, and constantly feeling threatened,” Dr. Holland-Kornegay explained.

PTSD can be a host of things, but for many Black men these things will be looked at as “the normal way of life for brothers.” Our Black men have a distrust of the medical institution in America. Things like the Tuskegee Experiment and other medical atrocities committed in the name of medical advancement and savagery keep many Black men at home self-diagnosing or coping in ways that are detrimental.

Dr. Jean Bonhomme, founder of the National Black Men’s Health Network, offers some insight into why Black men don’t seek help.

Lack of Awareness

For instance, African American men die at the hands of prostate cancer at high rates, but if you ask a Black man where the prostate gland is he probably won’t know. It’s a lack of information out there for Black male health concerns. All we seem to hear about are things like Susan G Komen Walk for Breast Cancer, but not initiatives for the mental health of Black men.

Distrust of the Healthcare System

There are some popular sayings that are quite indicative of how Black men feel about the healthcare system such as, “When Black people go in to that hospital they don’t’ come out again,” or “I ain’t gon be no guinea pig.” It’s because of things like the Tuskegee Experiment and other medical mishaps that toyed with the lives of Black men. Also, the healthcare system is mainly geared towards women. When you go into a doctor’s office all you seem to see are magazines geared towards women’s issues which can be a turnoff to men.

John Henryism

“John Henryism” is a popular phrase coined by Black epidemiologist Sherman James  which “posits that repetitive high-effort coping with social and economic adversity is a major contributor to the well-known excess risk among poor and working class African Americans for hypertension and related cardiovascular diseases.” For those that aren’t familiar with the legend folklore of John Henry here is the story in short. The moral of the story points out how Black men go to the extreme to prove their worth and mettle in the attempt to survive and overcompensate for what society says against them. As Dr. Bonhomme says, “Black men drive themselves into distorted extremes trying to make up for what society has against them.”

Do It Yourself Mentality

As Black men we’re taught to be stoic and not complain about our problems. We don’t seek help because we’re taught to make it happen in silence which leads to a lot of harmful coping behaviors. This is a very powerful barrier to therapy because Black men are so innately designed to not ask for help. In this society “we value the man that doesn’t show any pain.” Studies have shown a correlation between life stress and income. For every other race besides Black men, as income increases, life stress decreases. I guess B.I.G. was right, “Mo Money Mo Problems.”

“I’m Not Crazy”

Brothers don’t want to be categorized as crazy. Dr. Bonhomme uses a famous phrase when addressing his patient’s uneasiness about seeking therapy. “You’re not crazy, you’re responding to things that are crazy.” You should be feeling a certain way when you’re surrounded by death, you should be sad after going through a painful divorce and you should be irritable for going through workplace racism on a daily basis. Don’t be afraid to address the elephant in the room.

Signs to Watch Out For

Depression in men looks different than in women. You’ll see a lot of behaviors in women that are telling, such as crying spells and feelings of worthlessness. Men aren’t that introspective. Male signs are often behavioral. If you’ve ever seen brothers who’re prone to gambling, irritable, sexually promiscuous and other self-defeating behaviors they might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These self-medicating coping strategies are harmful and require intensive medical treatment.

Seeking therapy is the best route. As Bob Marley says, “If everyday the bucket goes to the well then eventually the bottom will fall out.” What we don’t release will eventually come out.

Black men can be pressure cookers ready to explode when we don’t address what we feel inside and live life passively. Make an appointment to see a therapist, talk to them about what weighs you down on a daily basis. Mental health is wealth. Be well.

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