I remember the first time I started to notice I was struggling with my mental health. It was three years ago and I was completely burnt out. I was getting anxious and worried about every sudden change that happened, and I was irritable about everything. It affected my work, my relationship with my family, and my love life.
We always hear about how "strong" black women are. We are women who get up every day to run our own businesses, climb up the corporate ladder, take care of the children, support our friends/partner, and uplift the next woman all at the same damn time. Doesn't that sound exhausting—to be expected to carry all of these things on your shoulders and to still show up with a smile on your face? This can take a toll on anyone—mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.
In the same way that black women are not given enough space to really talk about our struggles, it's the same, if not worse, for our black men. Black men have their own weight of the world to carry and have been conditioned to avoid addressing how their mental health has impacted their lives, especially in relationships.
I know we have all experienced relationships or friendships when things just feel "off". We can either assume the guy is "trippin'" or we can accuse the guy of acting immature. But what if it's deeper than that? Just like we black women have our days working with our own issues, it could be applied for the men, too. What if the guy you are dating is dealing with a mental health issue and hasn't figured out how to really balance it, in the name of love?
I am all for providing safe space for both my black men and women to really understand where each of us are coming from. These four black men were able to be completely honest with me with the deets on what goes on in their minds for matters of the heart:
*Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.
"When I was younger I was placed into foster care at around six years old. I had a lot of behavioral challenges and was labeled as an 'at-risk youth'. They had me going to therapy, group counseling, and taking medication, all to control me. Now that I am an adult and I am more aware of my story, I am able to identify my mental health challenges that stem back to my childhood. Part of my self-care has been practicing self-awareness and giving myself permission to explore resources that teach me how to cope with feelings I may have never experienced before or I have and just don't know why.
"In past relationships, it was as if I was six years old again, feeling things that I couldn't explain, but in adult form. So every time I would feel things I couldn't explain, I would sometimes react in unhealthy ways, not because I was a bad person but because I grew up in environments that didn't teach me how to handle my emotions. I didn't learn conflict resolution growing up. I'm only really learning it now.
"Every failed relationship taught me that we have to remember that we are meeting people in the middle of their stories. I was showing up in relationships with baggage that I didn't even know I was carrying, and so were they. We all want love and healthy relationships. But at the time, I wasn't aware I wasn't ready for any of it. We are both showing up as the sum total of everything that we have been through and sometimes we haven't healed yet."
"I think mental health and black men get a bad rap. Black men who are serious about their mental health or who advocate for it are often met with criticism instead of open arms or even open-mindedness. And I think that speaks to how the black community at large, especially men, are still fighting to change the narrative around mental health. A lot of us come from families where mental health wasn't a thing. A lot of it is ignorance and a misconception that if you go to get help that there is something wrong with you and then you're labeled.
"There is also a lack of resources if we're to be honest. We don't talk enough about how self-care is a luxury. Everyone can't afford or have access to it. But despite the stigma, I think we have a responsibility to check-in with ourselves and do whatever we can to be the best that we can. Once you get a handle on your mental health, you can handle relationships and businesses well, your career thrives, and everything attached to you starts to prosper. It is truly liberating."
Courtesy of Devin
"I think the biggest moment I realized I was struggling with my mental health was when I moved to a new city by myself in 2017. I recognized that a lot goes into not just being an adult, but having a work-life balance and paying attention to how outside factors impact me. I noticed how I would cling to past romantic relationships and string them out longer than they needed to be. I have decided to seek help since then, but I haven't done so just yet. The main reason is that I have prioritized other things above this and honestly one of the things I factor into it is money. Working in education, I'm not making shit. I do know that I have some assistance in my healthcare package with my job, but I just haven't acted on it yet.
"With trying to balance work and my romantic relationships, people felt like they couldn't read me. When I would be feeling depressed, I would shut down and not be as open. Sometimes I felt that I could articulate what I was going through at the time, the best way I could, but it was either not being received or I wasn't being understood. I have learned from those moments that I need to refine my communication on my emotional state in the future."
Courtesy of Chris
"I really got a grasp on my mental health when I was in college. I was diagnosed with bipolar depression, and I have tried therapy and prescription drugs. With therapy, I compared it to going to the gym. You go in and once you're done you feel great. But once you leave, you eventually start going back to those old ways—like it was only effective when I was there, not afterwards. With the medication, I have tried five to six prescriptions, but things were not working. Since I'm an Illustrator, I've been able to put a lot of emphasis on keeping myself busy with my passion and using it when times get rough.
"With my girlfriend and I, I have always had a hard time expressing myself and getting my point across. It would take me weeks to express something so small that could have been handled sooner if I would've just said something in that moment. I also isolate myself a lot. I don't want to be a burden and bring any bad vibes to anyone when I am feeling down."
"Now that we have a son, I want to say that I have improved a bit. Before, if I would get upset, I would sit in that mood for weeks and sometimes months. Now, I have managed to be upset for a couple of days and sometimes not even that long. When I get stressed out, I want to step away, but you can't do that with a four-year-old, especially during these times. So I try the breathing exercises and stick it out for my son. I want my family to work, so I am putting in the work by communicating and making sure my girl knows that I am still the man she fell in love with, despite my diagnosis. It's an everyday process, but it's important to seek out any positivity and hold on to it."
"When I noticed I was struggling with my mental health, it [was] toward the middle of 2019. I put a lot of pressure on myself as a husband and a father of two, because I didn't grow up in a two-parent household. Technically, I'm adopted and not having that relationship with either of my parents is what I have realized really impacted me. My wife and I just started marriage counseling.
"Granted, my wife and I have an immaculate friendship and are wonderful parents to our kids together, but when it comes down to our relationship, we operate differently in what makes us tick. During counseling, one of the hardest parts for me is that I am very vocal and articulate how I feel. But I didn't know I wasn't articulating everything. Whenever there is conflict or a confrontation, I have a template where I handle every situation the same way and that's not going to work. So for both of us, it has been this peeling of the banana and peeling back these layers so we can get over the hump.
"I commend my wife for being there for me naturally and admittedly I know I pushed her away being guarded and defensive. I grew up in an environment where it's either 'Get them or get got' and I needed to learn how to not be figuratively armed all the time. So now I am working on undoing some of the damage I have caused. I applaud her for being patient with me and it makes me love her that much more.
"For my men who are struggling, it's OK to be vulnerable. It's OK to understand that you may have been susceptible to certain experiences you wish have never happened. Do not allow it to hold you back from who you are meant to be. Us men, we try to shoulder the world of everything that we were told that we ain't and everything we haven't been given. We can't do it all alone. We also have to understand the importance of the black woman and how she contributes to our lives."
"Black women have been doing the same thing for years and years and that is protecting black men. So it is up to us to protect black women by healing ourselves and stopping this vicious cycle of toxic masculinity. We have to take ownership of that."
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