Is Acting Like a "Man" Hurting Black Men Emotionally?

Hiding emotions can negatively affect mental health, a new study reveals.

Posted: 04/20/2012 05:12 PM EDT

For generations, African-American men have been told that a "real man" is the strong, yet silent type who keeps all of their emotions in check. A "real man" doesn't cry, need therapy or ask for help.

And while this may be widely accepted by our community, a recent study suggests that this type of hypermasculine approach could have serious repercussions — especially when it comes to black men dealing with their feelings about racism and discrimination.

A researcher from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed data from surveys of 674 African-American men, ages 18 and older, and found that Black men who talked about their battles with "everyday racism" were less likely to be depressed compared to Black men who chose to remain silent about their issues. (It's important to note that "everyday racism" is usually defined as persistent subtle forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently by others.)

A few keys points were found in the research:

—Everyday racial discrimination was associated with depression across all age groups.
—Younger men (under age 40) were more depressed, experienced more discrimination and had a stronger allegiance to [gender] norms encouraging them to restrict their emotions than men more than 40 years old.
—Some men who embraced norms encouraging more self-reliance reported less depression.
—If men felt strongly about the need to shut down their emotions, then the negative effect of discrimination on their mental health was amplified. The association was particularly apparent for men ages 30 and older.

When asked why certain pressures of masculinity can negatively affect black men's mental health, Wizdom Powell Hammond, Ph.D., the study's lead author, told

"Well, the world doesn’t react positively to Black folks talking about the discrimination they’ve experienced. [Accusations of pulling] the race card function as a cloak over our collective experience. It’s the elephant in the room and some of us want to [ignore discrimination] as much as others do because we’re trying to negotiate complex interracial experiences. I think this dynamic is more pronounced with Black men than Black women. They’re taught that steel sharpens steel, that they’re supposed to shut down, “man up” and “keep it moving.” They [often] believe that restricted emotionality is essential to being male."

So what can be done?

Hammond admits not all norms hurt Black men, but there must be ways to create safer spaces for men to be emotional without being judged.

These findings are particularly important given the rising rates of depression and suicide among Black men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third cause of death among African-American males between ages 15 and 24, behind homicide and accidents. Also, suicide death rates among Black men are five times higher than Black women.



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