Real Men On How Mental Health Struggles Impacted Their Relationships

Black men are honest about addressing how their mental health has affected their lives, especially in relationships.

Human Interest

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.

Khas, 30

"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."

Devin, 29


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."

Chris, 30


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."

Avrey, 31

"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."

Featured image by Shutterstock

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

This article is in partnership with Staples.

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