Unharm Our Sons: Black Fathers, Masculinity and Mental Health


Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

“I swallowed all of them!” I blurted out, as I burst into my parents’ room frantically.

Barely looking up from the TV, my father glanced me over, up and down, as if a passerby had cut him off on a busy crosswalk. “Take him to the hospital,” he grumbled. He then continued flipping through the channels, as my mother darted up to find her keys, purse and shoes, scurrying all around the house in a state of panic. Her visceral, instinctive reaction seemed much more rational, considering the urgency in my voice.

More than a decade later, Black boys like my 15-year-old self still live in a state of emergency. 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, few therapists and mental health advocates have given this public health crisis the level of attention it deserves.

What is more, there are times when many Black parents, particularly fathers, seem just as apathetic. I noticed this tendency while working as a school-based therapist in predominantly Black schools in Philadelphia. One father, for instance, attributed his son’s self-harming to him “hanging around too many girls.” Another told me that “being around his mother, grandmother and aunts so often” had instigated his son’s depression.

I have always vacillated about airing any of the Black community’s “dirty laundry,” but I intentionally retell stories about Black boys’ mental health in order to shed light on a pernicious and self-destructive cultural norm in the Black community: toxic masculinity, or the belief that violence, sexual aggression and emotional detachment epitomize manhood.

Historically, Black men have opted into toxic masculinity to preserve their sanity, and to protect and provide for their families. Beginning with slavery, America’s sociopolitical structures and institutions have upheld a racially stratified, patriarchal class system that, to varying degrees, has oppressed everyone except wealthy white men. This reality, coupled with a desperation to escape racialized poverty, left Black men with no other choice but to attempt assimilating into the dominant culture.

As they say, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

However, most Black men can attest that assimilation has not elevated their social status in the slightest. And the harder Black men have tried to outdo white men as patriarchs, the more they ingrained exaggerated toxic masculinity, or hypermasculinity, into the culture of Black masculinity.

Today, Black men continue to inherit and pass down a legacy of trauma stemming from generations of hypermasculine gender socialization, “the process through which children learn about the social expectations, attitudes and behaviors typically associated with boys and girls.” This learned mentality explains why Black fathers often teach their sons that “real” men do not acknowledge their susceptibility to debilitating emotions like fear, pain and sadness. Like toxic masculinity, hypermasculinity demands men prove their manhood by dissociating from their inner emotional lives and vulnerability.

Here, vulnerability does not mean being open and exposed to harm or danger, in a literal sense. Emotional vulnerability means openness and transparency in safe spaces and in the context of safe, trusting relationships, like the one between a therapist and client, or a parent and child.

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.

Regrettably, disowning vulnerability has stunted the emotional development of many Black boys and men, myself included. Many of us never learned how to process and cope with 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 leaves Black boys and men with one of the most devastating consequences of hypermasculinity: 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?

I began working in school-based mental health because I had hoped to be the advocate whom I needed when I was younger, and to empower Black boys with the kind of tender mentorship I had never received from Black men while growing up. As a Black man who gives himself permission to feel, it brings me joy to know that many Black boys see their reflections in me. Still, I am keenly aware there are many more Black boys who need the affirmation I offer than there are Black male therapists and educators like me.

For this reason, my plea to all Black men, especially Black fathers, is an urgent call to action: to help me help Black boys liberate their hearts and minds, before it is too late. I cannot shoulder this responsibility alone. It takes a village.

Black boys, especially those with mental health issues, need all the guidance, protection and nurturance 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. We can no longer afford to abandon them in a societal minefield without an emotional compass to heal and advocate for themselves.

It is up to us to teach Black boys that there is more to life than proving one’s manhood. Up to us to help them unlearn the generational curse of struggling from disappointment and trauma in silence. Up to us to guide them to the healing they so desperately need and deserve. And up to us show them the importance of remaining rooted in their humanity.

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 Los Angeles-based youth development practitioner, trainer, and researcher, who recently earned a M.Phil.Ed in Professional Counseling from University of Pennsylvania and a Ed.M. in Human Development & Psychology from Harvard University.

Previously published on goodmenproject.com

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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