S.O.S: We Need More Black Men as Therapists Now!
Many of us are still in shock after learning that Stephen “tWitch” Boss died by suicide.
When public figures die by suicide I often hear people make comments such as “They had so much to live for” or “They seemed really happy.” While I do not know the specific events that led to this unfortunate outcome for the Boss family, my experience working with people who are suicidal has taught me a few things. First, people who are suicidal are usually experiencing mental health struggles that are unnoticed and/or untreated. As a result, their judgment may be impaired and they often have a hard time coming up with other options to address their concerns. They often feel hopeless and do not see how things will improve or they feel that family/friends will be better off if they are not around. It is even more complicated with high performing people because they often think that other people have worse problems than they do or that they should know how to solve their problems alone. Also, they may worry about privacy concerns and public ridicule if they seek support. For Black men, mental health stigma and stereotypes about Black men can also serve as barriers to accessing support. Instead of seeking help, they wear a mask, concealing their emotional pain and pretending all is well, until it is too late.
A mental health crisis for Black men and boys
As society grapples with a global mental health crisis and a broken mental health system, racial inequities in mental health persist in the Black community. Suicide rates for Black youth are increasing and outpacing their White counterparts. A report submitted to Congress from The Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce, Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America, highlights that suicide rates for Black youth ages 5 to 12 years are double the rate for their White peers and that the suicide death rate for Black youth is increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group. In addition to our children/adolescents, suicide rates are highest among Black Americans 25 – 34 years of age and suicide rates for Black males (11.7) are more than 4 times the rate for Black women (2.6) (Suicide Prevention Resource Center).
While these suicide rates sound the alarm and create a need for urgent mental health services for Black men and boys, utilization rates tell another story. In the Black community, Black men have been socialized to keep their pain private. They are told that men should not talk about their feelings or their problems and that they should not share family business with people outside the family, especially people who represent power and authority. This leads to an unfortunate outcome with Black men walking around wounded and with bottled up hurt and pain. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI, 2015) shows that only 6.6% of Black men who have a mental health condition will seek therapy. That means that over 93% of Black men who are struggling with a mental illness will not seek treatment. With their actions, Black men are saying “therapy is not for me.” Why? One reason is that we do not have enough Black men in the mental health field. These alarming statistics are definitely sounding the alarm and spotlighting the need for more Black male therapists.
Lack of representation is a huge problem in the mental field, and it impacts people pursuing treatment or seeing a career in mental health as a viable option.
Bringing More Black Men into the Mental Health: It is Urgent and it Starts Young
Black men are significantly underrepresented in mental health careers. Pew Research data (2019) shows that Black men account for 48% of the U.S. Black population, but less than 1% of the psychology workforce. In fact, the APA Center for Workforce Studies data reveals that only 4% of the U.S. psychology workforce identify as Black and of these Black psychologists, only 8% were Black men (APA, 2022).
When we see headlines about suicide, we often turn our attention to the outcome and spend much of our time talking about what happened. As a society, we must recognize we already have what we need to stop these fatal outcomes for our Black men and boys, but we have to move further upstream with urgency and with purpose. We urgently need to diversify the mental health workforce because the low numbers of Black mental health practitioners are alarming; the low therapy utilization rates are astounding; and the high rates of suicide among Black men and boys are frightening. If we are truly committed to changing the mental health outcomes for Black men, then we must start with the following 4 priority areas:
- Foster emotional literacy: We need to teach Black boys and men to name and express their emotions. Sharing feelings is not a weakness, it is actually a strength and talking about your struggles fosters connection, community, and support. It allows people to empathize with your situation and it helps you to communicate what you need. When you can identify your emotions, it helps you grow comfortable asking for help.
- Teach mental health literacy: We need to teach Black men and boys how to recognize their signs of stress and the various ways that mental health conditions might manifest for them. We also have to teach them to recognize the early signs so that they can get support before the problem becomes severe. As part of mental health literacy, Black male youth need to know that a career in mental health is a financially sustainable career option. Dr. Kwame Dance, developed a youth program, Mental Health ACCESS: Advancement of Culturally Competent Education to Stop Stigma, that addresses mental health literacy.
- Offer culturally responsive therapeutic approaches: We need Black men and boys to know that there are therapeutic approaches that resonate with their life experiences. Talk therapy is a standard therapeutic intervention, but given that many Black men have been socialized to bottle up their emotions, offering talk therapy as the only solution misses the mark. Therefore, promoting approaches that integrate music, songwriting, and dance such as Hip Hop therapy or social justice, sports, and faith can make the therapeutic process much more appealing.
- Increase access to graduate school: We need Black men and boys with degrees in mental health. For too long, Black youth have been steered away from the mental health field due to the high cost, time needed to obtain an advanced degree, and negative messages about the field. Additional time spent earning an advanced degree means delaying earning money that can support a family’s immediate needs– a delay that some people cannot afford. Without a college degree and/or post-graduate degree, people often get stuck in frontline mental health roles (e.g., milieu counselors) with no path forward for obtaining an advanced degree or moving up in the organization or they leave the industry. Therefore, itâ€™s time to elevate careers in mental health, provide coaching and guidance for people interested in entering the field, and increase access to scholarships.
Over the past 16 years I have provided clinical supervision to over 30 students pursuing a degree in mental health. Only 6 of these students were men and only 3 (10%) were Black men. I started InnoPsych to address racial inequities in mental health by increasing access to therapists of color and by educating communities of color about the importance of mental health. Black men and boys need to know that there is a place for them to express their emotions and people they can talk to about their struggles. This is a call to action for each of us to do our part to promote mental health and to ensure that our loved ones know how to get support during tough times.
We need our Black men and boys to feel safe sharing their emotions and asking for help.
We need our Black men and boys to know that there are options other than suicide to stop their emotional pain.
We need our Black men to do more than survive.
We need our Black men to thrive.
We need more Black male therapists now, more than ever.
About Dr. Charmain Jackman
Dr. Charmain Jackman is an award-winning licensed psychologist and global spokesperson on BIPOC mental health. She has worked in K12 schools for over 17 years and served as the Dean of Health & Wellness at Boston Arts Academy from 2011-2021, where she led impactful initiatives to address adolescent mental health. Dr. Jackman is the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, Inc., a mental health tech start-up on a mission to disrupt racial inequities in mental health and to improve mental health outcomes for people of color. She also consults with schools and organizations on topics including emotional health & learning, racial trauma, burnout, and employee wellbeing. She has won several awards for her innovative work including the 2021 American Psychological Association’s Citizen Psychologist Award and City of Boston’s 2021 Innovator of The Year award. She has also been featured on global media outlets such as the New York Times, NPR, and the Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to the PBS Teachers Lounge.