Depression among Black men is an oft-unspoken pain that deeply affects the health and quality of life of Black people. In fact, the most current review of evidence on Black men and depression suggests a prevalence of five percent to 10 percent. This figure may be much larger, as depression is commonly underdiagnosed. Even more, the failure to address the roots of Black male depression is undermining our communities and keeping us blind to the deep harm of historical and structural racism.
Depressive moods and major depressive disorders are defined as the presence of a low mood, sadness, and reluctance to engage in activities for long periods of time. These symptoms often build upon one another, which makes life even more difficult. The physical and mental problems from depression can seep into all areas of life, including home, work, friends, family, and community.
The sociological risk factors for depression are well-known—income, poverty, employment, childhood trauma—but for Black men and women, these factors are rooted in the greater lived experience of being Black in the United States. “A lot of our [Black people’s] depression comes from our situation as a people,” says Eric Bridges, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Clayton State University who studies depression among Black men.
Black people living in the United States are subject to greater levels of factors that drive depression, such as poverty and violence. According to 2014 US Census Bureau data, the poverty rate for Black men ages 18 to 64 years-old was 21 percent. Furthermore, Black youth are exposed to poverty and violence that sow the seeds for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder in later life.
According to the United States Census Bureau American Community Survey, 38 percent of Black children in the U.S. live in poverty, compared to 22 percent of all U.S. children. While U.S. children are exposed to high levels of violence, the rates of victimization and exposure to violence for Black children are exceedingly high. Black children are twice as likely to be sexually abused as white children.
In addition to trauma, Black men deal with a constellation of racism-related stressors, like discrimination, stereotypes, mass incarceration, and police brutality. These stressors degrade their emotional and mental well-being to various degrees. When paired with social norms and ideals about masculinity that require men to remain “strong,” dealing with this harsh reality raises the risk of depression.
Symptoms of depression that are commonly found in men include sleeping too much or too little, loss of focus, anger, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, physical pain, and suicidal thoughts.
These symptoms can be damaging to families and communities. The inability to process anger can lead to family dysfunction and contribute to intimate partner violence. Calling out these behaviors as symptoms of depression can be complicated due to the power or privilege straight cisgender men hold over women, who are likely to be impacted by such behaviors. Such symptoms like anger and substance abuse are normalized behaviors for men. Naming these violent behaviors because of mental health concerns does not absolve men who engage in these behaviors of their responsibility or individual culpability but provides a macro-level contextual picture of the various ways mental health issues can manifest.
Many Black men may hold on to masculine ideals to fight against emotional distress. For example, many Black men believe that gaining financial success, a masculine ideal, will relieve them of oppression. But that isn’t the case. Structural racism in the form of residential segregation, labor market discrimination, a lifetime of negative stereotyping and overcriminalization severely undermines Black men’s economic opportunities.
In this country, Black people have been stripped of our humanity, including the right to express the full range of human emotions. Historically, the enslaved were violently deterred from expressing emotional distress or mental illness. We must recognize that the dominant ideals of manhood that tell Black men not to be vulnerable are rooted in white patriarchy and oppression. Swallowing the pain of being dehumanized contributes to depression.
Akilah Wise is a public health researcher and journalist who covers public health, medicine, and inequity. She was a research fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.