Black, Male & Depressed – MHC Interview
Being male is often associated with having physical and emotional strength. Although many men do possess these attributes, these attributes are often mistaken for indestructibility. In 2013, 78% percent of people who committed suicide were male and 22% were female (1). An even more nuanced glance is needed when statistics show that in the UK, young African Caribbean men are one of the most overrepresented BME groups in inpatient mental health services in the country (2). This is in juxtaposition to the lack of understanding/discussion about mental health in the black community. We can’t ignore these statistics, something is going wrong and in order to provide solutions we first need to understand the problem further.
To understand this, I interviewed two black Christian men who have both experienced depression in the past. One called Marcus and the other called Nathaniel. I pray that their accounts are enlightening.
Me: Tell me about your experiences of depression
Marcus: I have been depressed quite a few times in the past. Also, around me I’ve seen quite a few people depressed as well. This was because of things that happened to me that I weren’t aware of. In terms of family members, it was one of my parents and siblings who also became depressed.
Nathaniel: My experiences with depression started at university, so around the age of 18-22. I dealt with it in various forms but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed spontaneous and I couldn’t see the root. I felt suicidal but what stopped me going deeper into suicidal thoughts was the fear of hell. Even after University, something traumatic happened to me which then knocked me of course. I felt overwhelmed but this time, because I had equipped myself with knowledge, I knew how to handle it in a better manner.
Me: When did you first start having suicidal thoughts?
Marcus: I wouldn’t say I’ve had thoughts of suicide. More thoughts of hopelessness have flashed in my head. There were fleeting thoughts of suicide but I then thought “I’m not doing that”. I had my first burst of hopeless thoughts when I was 17 as a number of things were occurring in my life at the time. These thoughts often sounded like “things are never going to get better” and I was feeling lonely.
Nathaniel: It started with a heaviness like “I can’t remove this cloak off of me”. It then reached a pinnacle where I felt like I wanted to end it. When you think of “ending it”, your mind goes to thinking there isn’t anything better.
Me: Did you tell anyone about the nature of your thoughts? If so, what happened? If not, why not?
Marcus: Initially I didn’t because it’s not something that I’m used to because of the sort of environment that I grew up in. Especially growing up in an African/Carribean background it’s not something that’s really spoken about much or addressed. Now mental health has come to the forefront at that time it wasn’t even a thing. One could say that I was quite ignorant of it. If someone said I was depressed I’d think “what me?”. The depression was still there but I brushed off the suicidal thoughts because I thought they were ‘silly’. Anyone on the outside thought I was happy but on the inside that wasn’t the case. This is just the way I am, I like to joke around. However, when I was depressed I would then over do it and do even more to show myself as happy. The thing about depression is that isolation is present which separates you from people. This meant that you don’t get close to people long enough to know who to trust. I did feel alone and isolated so it was hard to tell someone who may seem trustworthy these things.
Nathaniel: I told one or two people however in general I didn’t. The reason I didn’t is because I hadn’t fully admitted to myself that I was going through depression so I didn’t feel like it was worthy to speak about. Also, because I was in a leadership position I wasn’t sure who I could be vulnerable to. When people are looking towards you for help and support, you feel like you have to be strong for those people.
Me: Did you feel as if there were any cultural barriers that stopped you from opening up?
Marcus: Definitely because there is a lack of understanding. It’s only when one of my sibling had depression that one of my parents started to seek more information about these things.
Nathaniel: I wouldn’t say there were cultural barriers per say but the home I was raised in made an impact. I felt very shut down and it was quite emotionally abusive. If I was offended I wouldn’t open up. When I was living with my father I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to him even in relation to grades or academics so I didn’t feel comfortable speaking about my emotions.
Me: The statistics show that men are underrepresented in regards to accessing service but are over presented in regards to suicide. Why do you think perhaps this is?
Marcus: I think it’s the makeup of men. In my opinion, females are quick to open up and more free with their emotions whereas males aren’t. To express yourself to a counsellor who is a stranger is a bit weird. For me, it was just cultural but I can’t really say why males from different ethnic backgrounds think like that.
Nathaniel: I think that depression is not that understood in the community. Also it isn’t taught in the community as well as it should be. People have the belief that if you just pray everything will be fine but that isn’t the case. People put mental health and spiritual health into one box but there needs to be a greater distinction. There just needs to be more education on it.
Some men grow up in single mother homes and as a result they see themselves as being the strong one in that context. They don’t have a father so they have to take on the father figure or a stereotypical form of what a father is. Hyper masculinity also plays a part. Men don’t know what being masculine is. Our mindset of masculinity is being strong and being the person that people are always vulnerable with. Men don’t grow up knowing how to appropriately let out emotions.
Me: What symptoms show that a man is going through depression?
Marcus: For some it may be an overstraining for success. A negative or strange change in character. When I became depressed I started to overdo jokes to the point someone called me as a response to check if I was ok. Isolation is often present, even mental isolation. Where males are in the midst of people but are still ‘isolated’.
Nathaniel: Males tend to get quite closed up when they are going through something. They might struggle to have conversation on the phone for example. Also, they might be quite reserved. In addition, sexual pleasure can be used as an escape. Whether that is pornography or masturbation. In the poem “Beauty part 3”, the poet Carvens Lissaint describes how men can use sexual pleasure to escape their emotions.
Me: Why might black males in particular feel less able to open up with their vulnerabilities?
Marcus: It’s subconsciously what we’ve been told. I grew up in a very strong african christian home and whilst it was never confirmed, conversations like this would have led to buckets of anointing oil etc. If that’s the focus, no one really wants to open up. When you’re young you pick up things subconsciously. If you’re a man you think “Me depressed? Nah”. Also, I believe that some of our parents have dealt with mental health issues who don’t deal with them and then project them onto their children. I’ve seen parents who are stressed trying to make ends meet who have no time for their children. For instance the child can ask a curious question but the mother can react in anger not because of the question but because of the pressures of life.
Nathaniel: Cultural stereotypes make it seem quite feminine, as a male it is not what you are supposed to do. Especially if your father isn’t around, there’s this notion of “I need to be strong, I need to be the man”. For the African male, there’s this perception that if you are feeling depressed you should just pray about it. African males who have been brought up in a religious households are told to just pray about their issues. Opening up can be seen as a lack of faith and sign that you don’t believe God.
Me: How do you stop your low days from turning back to depression?
Marcus: Not everything is going to be rosy. Of course have goals but don’t take things personally. Also there’s a lot of pressures surrounding the black men that I’ve seen on social media that mostly come from black females. On the surface of it we laugh but sometimes we go back and start to question ourselves “I’m 23, I’ve been told I should have X, Y and Z by 25, it’s unrealistic”. If those expectations aren’t met, then you are rendered useless.
Nathaniel: My relationship with God helps as it fortifies my mind. Gym is an outlet to help my mind. Reading and having a limit on social media. Going out with friends more and knowing the things that can make me feel low.. In terms of my mindset, I now use tips from the book “Spiritual depression”.
Me: Lastly, what advice would you give to a young male considering suicide?
Marcus: Speak to people. You also might need a qualified professional. There’s different reasons why people have suicidal thoughts so it’s important that you speak to someone professional.
Nathaniel: There is a hope and the Christian belief provides that. I would present my hope to him, this is the hope of Life that helps me. Also, in regards to suicide, at that moment you are not thinking of anyone but yourself but at the same time if you truly love your family and other people you have to think of the aftermath. Don’t give up. But I believe the ultimate cure is the Christian faith. Another advice I would give is reading up on depression. For the Christian who has depression look into Charles Spurgeon who dealt with depression throughout his Christian life. That would set a lot of people free. Lastly, there is more to life outside of the pain you may be currently feeling. Even though it doesn’t seem like it. There is a life outside of this. In regards to the pain, feel the pain, don’t dismiss it, get through it. Even though it doesn’t seem like it now there is life outside of this.
My thoughts as an interviewer: From these interviews I think what is highlighted is that it is important that men are given safe spaces to heal, be vulnerable and deal with unresolved pain. This should be part of the home environment growing up but unfortunately in the African/Caribbean and often Christian backgrounds this is not the case. It is important that emotions are not suppressed but acknowledged and importantly, this process should not take away from one’s masculinity. If you are dealing with these issues I want you to know that you are not alone and importantly as Nathaniel highlighted, there is a hope in Christ. He longs to walk this journey with you. The same way He did for myself, Marcus and Nathaniel.
Bromley, C., et al. (2014). The Scottish Health Survey: 2013 edition, volume 1, main report. [online] Edinburgh: The Scottish Government. Available at: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0046/00464858.pdf [Accessed 25 Aug. 2015].