From 1993 to 2012, the prevalence of suicide attempts among Black boys nearly doubled, and the rate of self-injury has climbed steadily in recent years. Despite these staggering figures, the stigma of many Black folks, particularly fathers, continues to perpetuate this public health crisis.
I do not raise this issue to shame Black fathers, but instead to shed light on the toxic masculinity that underlies many Black men’s stigma of mental health.
Our society’s pervasive culture of toxic masculinity has its roots in chattel slavery. This morally depraved economic system––wherein wealthy white men measured their manhood chiefly by profit––continues to teach men that suppressing their conscience and humanity is necessary to survive capitalism. Historically, Black men have opted into this dominant culture, in order to provide for their families and to shield them from racialized poverty.
Here, vulnerability does not mean exposing oneself to harm or danger, in a literal sense. Emotional vulnerability simply means honesty and openness in the context of safe spaces and safe, trusting relationships.
Emotional vulnerability is a fundamental building block of emotional well-being and mental health, and thus, discussing how Black boys are socialized to disown and reject it, is key to combating their high rates of suicide and self-injury. Moreover, emotional vulnerability is central to emotional intelligence, which has been found to serve as a protective factor against depression and suicide. Many studies show that having the emotional vocabulary to simply name a troubling or uncomfortable feeling is cathartic in and of itself.
“Like toxic masculinity, hyper-masculinity demands that boys and men prove their manhood by dissociating from their inner emotional lives and vulnerability.”
Regrettably, disowning vulnerability has stunted the emotional development of many Black boys and men, myself included. Many of us learned that “real” men do not acknowledge their susceptibility to crippling emotions like fear, pain, and sadness. We never learned how to process and cope with these feelings, let alone the psychological toll of racism or mental health conditions. Instead, we learned never to let our guards down, and to repress any self-expression besides “manly” displays of anger or rage.
In the long run, this way of thinking subject Black boys and men to one of the most devastating consequences of hyper-masculinity: a void of deep, personal connections with others. Anyone who works with kids knows that just one stable, trusting relationship with a supportive adult can save a child or youth from slipping through the cracks. Why, then, do we socialize Black boys to shun the emotional vulnerability necessary to build these enduring, nurturing connections?
Black boys, especially those with mental health issues, need all the guidance, protection, and nurturance that we can muster. They are dying at alarming rates not just from suicide and unaddressed mental health challenges, but also from structural injustices like community and school violence, food deserts and gentrification, racial disparities in HIV/AIDS prevention, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
It is up to us to teach Black boys that there is more to life than proving one’s manhood. And with suicide rates amongst Black boys reaching epic proportions, we can no longer risk abandoning them in a societal minefield without an emotional compass to heal and advocate for themselves.
So, I urge you to gather each and every Black boy you know in your arms, and be not just a shoulder to lean on––but also an insightful confidant, a vulnerable hero, and the brave example of a man who is unashamed of simply being human.
Jeff Baker is a social justice advocate, educator, therapist, and writer, with a deep knowledge of child and family welfare, positive youth development, mental health, and school and community-based social services. Recently, Jeff Baker earned an Ed.M. in Human Development & Psychology from Harvard University, and he also holds an M.Phil.Ed. in Professional Counseling from the University of Pennsylvania. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.