The slap seen around the world is a teachable moment about Black men and mental health.
Being a Black man in America often means being your brother’s keeper. Yet, when it comes to mental health, many Black men still struggle to tackle this important issue.
Today, this topic is being discussed more openly since actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. Just moments later, Smith received his first-ever Oscar win, a milestone overshadowed by his earlier confrontation with Rock. Viewers watched Smith experience a rollercoaster of emotions, including happiness, anger and remorse, within the span of one awards show.
Dr. Rahn Bailey, a psychiatrist with the W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute and the department head of Psychiatry at LSU’s School of Medicine, believes this moment highlights the mental health struggles many Black men are grappling with in America.
“Part of the issue is that Black men are not respected and valued at the same level as some other human beings in our society,” Dr. Bailey says. “I don’t think that would have happened if the comedian was not a Black male. Had he been a woman, I don’t think that would have happened. And perhaps had he been a white male, that may not have happened either. It could certainly be those roles are valued more.”
What’s Wrong With Will?
Before Smith became a megastar, he was—by his own admission in his book “Will”—a little boy filled with shame because he “allowed” his father to beat his mother. It made him feel like a coward. That perception of himself still haunts him as a 53-year-old man. Apparently, he felt he needed to protect his wife because (in his mind) he didn’t protect his mother. But according to Dr. Bailey, “Violence, in any form, does more harm than good 99% of the time—other than self-defense. And we should be very cautious, initially, when we quickly run to the defense of violence.”
But more than a few Black women felt Smith’s behavior was honorable, that he was defending his wife’s honor, a direct contradiction to Dr. Bailey’s conclusion. Is there any wonder that some Black men feel they can’t win? If they don’t respond as Smith did, will their partner be disappointed? Will she think of him as a failure? Might she feel unprotected? Think of the pressure!
Depression remains one of the most common yet underrecognized and undertreated mental illnesses among Black men, according to the National Institutes of Health. Their mental health is more complex than statistics or clinical diagnoses indicate, as they are forced to balance many unspoken pressures, unrealistic expectations and unfair stereotypes. Depressive symptoms are more disabling, persistent and treatment-resistant among Black people than among whites. Black men prefer same-race providers, but only 4% of doctoral-level professionals are Black.
Help Is Available
Therapy for Black Men is one option. It is an online service that provides access to therapists and coaches across the country by state. There is also financial support available from donors to provide free therapy to men without insurance or the personal resources to pay out of pocket. Dr. Justin K. Dodson of Memphis is one of the registered therapists on the site. He describes his clients as “professional males who are seeking discretion in a counselor.”
Whether Black men are on stage, in the board room or on the block, their emotions and state of mind need to be taken seriously. Wizdom Powell, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Connecticut, states, “The more that systems, programs and providers find culturally relevant ways to foster Black men’s mental health—including directly addressing racial trauma and its effects—the more society will benefit.” Imagine what the change in perception of Black men as assets rather than liabilities would have on their mental health.
Another resource for help and understanding of mental health was presented by Heart & Soul magazine’s virtual town hall presented in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The town hall featured doctors discussing the challenges Black families are facing at the intersection of COVID-19 and mental wellness.
Good people don’t necessarily believe in the goodness of others, particularly as it relates to everyday, hardworking Black men. I don’t know that we need to spend too much time worrying about what Smith did or why he did it. He has overwhelming resources to slay the demons he’s fighting. We can only hope that he will use them and take care of himself and that other Black men can find the help they need as well.