When Los Angeles Lakers forward Ron Artest was the awarded the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, I could not have been happier. Not only was I happy for Artest on a personal level, as he has come a long way from the infamous “Malice in the Palace” brawl and seems to be genuinely at peace with himself, but also because of what his award signified. He was being recognized for the work that he has done to raise awareness for mental health issues.
Since the end of last year’s NBA Finals, when Artest publicly thanked his therapists for the help she provided in preparing him for the crucial Game 7, he has been an outspoken advocate for mental health. He auctioned off his championship ring to raise money for mental health charities, as well as donating a portion of his 2010-11 salary to the cause, and also testified before Congress in support of the Mental Health in Schools Act.
What is so powerful about Artest’s activism is that, loudly and proudly, a black man is speaking out on the issue of mental health and advocating for therapy. Mental illness carries with it a stigma that often prevents those who suffer (for lack of a better term in this instance) from admitting to their illness or seeking help. This is particularly true among African-Americans, and black men specifically are not given the space to deal openly with issues of mental health without fear of judgment and attacks on their precepts of masculinity and manhood. The result has been a community suffering in silence until it is literally too late. Black people account for 25 percent of the nation’s mental health needs, despite only constituting 12 percent of the total population, and among young black men (ages 15-24), suicide is the third leading cause of death.
The most disheartening aspect in all of this is that it is completely preventable. We have the tools at our disposable to address this crisis, but what we do not have is the will. One major roadblock in the path to addressing mental illness in black men is our rigid and unflinching definition of black masculinity. We have been taught and continue to teach our sons, and daughters, that black men are to be ‘strong’ to the point of not expressing any emotion, outside of rage. We stifle the emotional development of our young men, telling them from an early age that ‘real men’ do not cry or talk about their feelings. We birth a culture of silence and contempt for anything that has to do with mental health. Black men are taught to tuck away the pain until it becomes too much and expresses itself in unhealthy ways, all under the guise of masculinity.
This is unsustainable. We are killing ourselves and for absolutely no reason. We may deeply distrust the institutions charged with caring for mental health, and with good reason, but the benefits of professional mental health care far outweigh the perceived detriments. If we were to begin to take seriously the issues of mental health, not only would suicide rates among black men go down, but it would likely lower instances of substance abuse, as drugs and alcohol are often used to self-medicate undiagnosed mental illnesses.
Violence, also, would probably be curbed as a result of mental health treatment, as acts of violence are sometimes a byproduct of untreated mental illness. And black men being taught to openly communicate about their feelings and more productive ways of expressing themselves would help be more conducive to fostering healthy relationships with other men and women in the community. We have everything to gain.
In order to break the stigma, it real require more black men stepping forward and telling their stories. Ron Artest is currently the most visible and famous black man speaking out on his experience. In his new book, Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop, author Ben Westhoff details the mental health issues Houston-based rapper and hip-hop legend Scarface faced as an adolescent. Scarface (born Brad Jordan) had a family history of mental illness, and he himself attempted suicide when he was twelve or thirteen years old, subsequently being institutionalized. These are the types of stories that need to be told, ones that black men will be able to relate to and know that they are not alone. We have to create safe spaces for black men to come forward and share and get treatment.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there’s no better time than now to get started on this mission. There have been many moments, especially in the past year, that could have been seized in order to start a real dialogue about the mental health crisis in the black community, and just when it seemed we recognized the opportunity, we let it slip away. Let us take the month of May to begin the conversation and sustain it into June, then onto July, and so on until we get to the point where we can not say “we have been silent too long” and instead it is “we are silent no more.”