The month of June may be expressly dedicated to Men’s Mental Health, but mental hygiene and self-care are matters that affect the male population — and by extension, everyone else — every single day.
CASSIUSLife had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Ryan McQueen, MD, Chief of Behavioral Health and Medical Director of Adolescent Services at Riverside Behavioral Health Center in Hampton, VA. He shared his belief in the need to prioritize mental health among the Black community, particularly Black men.
Dr. McQueen also gave some advice on long-held beliefs, which may be doing Black men more harm than good at this point. Some of the topics we covered include the increase in suicide among Black men, the myth of the absentee father, trying to find the balance between science and religion, and more.
Read on to learn how we can promote more profound, more challenging discussions about mental health that helps Black men — and by extension, everyone else — heal.
CASSIUSLife: Firstly, talk about the stigma of mental health issues in the Black community and how we can integrate faith/religion with the need for a medical approach to mental hygiene.
Dr. Ryan McQueen: Stigma against mental health is important in the black community. My first thought is to define stigma.
[Erving] Goffman in 1963 described it as, “The situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance.” Merriam Webster defines it as, “A mark of shame or discredit.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “Negative feelings that people have about particular circumstances or characteristics that somebody may have.” Stigma can shape our beliefs and reactions to a situation.
In the Black Community, mental health stigma is real. We want our children and family members to be strong in the face of adversity but do not always know how to help our community through mental health adversity. Some of it comes down to people not knowing what to say. Some people know what to say but are afraid to say it. Some fall back on their faith and religion to drive the point home that God will take care of you. There is Psalms 55:22, “Give your burdens to the Lord and he will take care of you,” which I heard many times throughout my life.
What is important to realize is not knowing what to say, being afraid to say what may need to be stated, and turning to religion and faith are all okay. To feel mental health concerns is natural. To feel the stigma for mental health issues is ingrained in the community. What is important is to direct anyone experiencing these issues to someone who can help.
Regarding faith, it is important to understand in whatever religion you believe in is that your higher power can and will place people in your path to correct the ongoing issues. That may be a friend, family member, therapist or psychiatrist. What I try to help people who are using faith to understand is some of what is placed in your path will be directed towards you, and some you will have to find.
CASSIUSLife: What do you make of the toxicity of the “Be A Man” narrative, especially when it’s thrust upon boys at a very young age?
Dr. Ryan McQueen: Boys are taught to be a certain way from an early age. It’s not only speech but men model how they want their children to be through their actions.
I understand that some people will not change. Some are willing to change, but it is difficult. I treat many people on most days of the year, from children to adults. I tell male patients and black teens and men; they are allowed to experience any emotion they feel but how they act upon that emotion is key. If humans were not supposed to feel hungry, tied, energetic, cry, angry, etc., then we would not have developed these feelings.
I usually ask anyone seeking psychiatric help who says, “I don’t cry,” how does it feel to feel angry, agitated or aggressive constantly? It is a matter of explaining, it is not about feeling vulnerable, it is about feeling and being available. Available to understanding how you feel, to change, and to acceptance. To be able to show emotion and feelings is not weakness, it is strength.
Learning how to take any emotions or feelings and turning them into a positive experience is essential. To take anger and to prevent it from becoming violence, to ask, “Is there a reason I feel this way?” stepping back to understand what one is experiencing and taking that thought and looking at different outcomes will help anyone become the person they want to become.
…they are allowed to experience any emotion they feel, but how they act upon that emotion is key.
CASSIUSLife: How can young Black men find their own self-defined picture of masculinity, particularly when juxtaposed with the more widely promoted norms of masculinity in society? (e.g. White men and good credit, Asian men and smarts, Latino men and sensuality, Black men and “street life”)
Dr. Ryan McQueen: It is about socially deconstructing the social construct of masculinity. The Black Community is working slowly towards changing the idea of masculinity.
One thought that comes to mind is how young people are more open to friendships and relationships with people outside of their communities. It is helpful for people to see other cultural concepts of masculinity and the positive traits associated with it. Young Black men should try to be more open to other cultures, other people and use this to make appropriate choices about life decisions.
CASSIUSLife: What do you suggest as ways to combat Black men self-destructing (crime, violence, addictions, etc.) or finding ways to exit society?
Dr. Ryan McQueen:
Some possible ways include the following:
- Anchor themselves to a strong community and to others with a strong foundation
- Faith and religious teachings can be helpful to set moral guidelines
- Asking out for help when its needed and not waiting until it is too late
- Speaking to others who have experienced the same issues and successfully overcome
- Understanding the past so it will not be repeated
- Making positive short-, mid-and long-term goals and achieving them
- Making a secure environment for male (and all) children
- Setting rules and expectations (curfews etc.)
- Teaching male children delayed gratification
- Respecting elders and the wisdom they impart
- Showing Black Male children, they are not alone and have a support system around them.
- Obtaining an education (high school, college, higher level education, trades, on the job training)
- Trying to remain positive
I was always taught; fast money is not the best money.
CASSIUSLife: The rate of suicide among Black men is increasing, though it’s also thought to be greatly underreported. Can we discuss the epidemiology (causes, spread, and control) of suicide, its increasing rate, and how we can normalize talking about suicide so we can healthily address it?
Dr. Ryan McQueen: To address suicide in Black men, talk about suicide in Black men. To normalize it, talk about it. I do not want people to think that I am discussing normalizing suicide but normalizing talking about suicide and mental health issues in Black Men.
As a Black Man myself, I feel okay talking about suicide and many other mental health issues, but that is based on my training and talking about it nearly every day. My training is not something everyone receives but I am willing to share my knowledge with people I encounter.
We need to go to public schools, private schools, schools in all neighborhoods, HBCUs, other colleges and universities to talk about suicide among Black men. We need to talk to the parents of Black youth about the same issues so when their children come to them, parents do not feel uncomfortable talking to them and seeking help. Emotions and feelings are normal, let’s talk about what’s normal.
To be able to show emotion and feelings is not weakness, it is strength.
CASSIUSLife: What do you make of the celebration of premature/unwanted sexual experience in Black boys, when a lot of those incidents would actually constitute assault?
Dr. Ryan McQueen: Forcing someone into a sexual encounter is never appropriate whether male or female. It is likely celebrated as a matter of societal or community acceptance of masculinity rather than the emotional experience or readiness of the boy in that community.
There is likely pressure from males in the community and within a peer group for premature or unwanted sexual experiences to occur. Many Black boys feel they must participate in this activity to be accepted and that is what most children/teenagers want, is to feel like part of a group and acceptance.
We must empower Black boys to say no and that it is okay to say no. We must empower the Black community to be accepting of Black boys who say no to premature or unwanted sexual experiences.
CASSIUSLife: What are the lasting effects of cyclically praising this behavior and how it harms the Black community at large?
Dr. Ryan McQueen: The lasting effects include promoting continuation of the same behaviors in future generations. If the sexual contact is unwanted, it could cause other mental health concerns including anger, anxiety, PTSD-like symptoms, depression, issues with sleep etc.
CASSIUSLife: Why do we cling so much to the myth of the absent Black dad? Or at least, what are some of the ways you think the Black community can be more aggressive about challenging it?
Dr. Ryan McQueen: This is a tough question.
Promoting false narratives is not uncommon in today’s media. It possibly comes down to monetary gain in certain outlets and trying to keep a group of people considered minorities oppressed and depressed. More importantly, what it does is increase anger in a community that others feel experience fatherlessness which precipitates use of the term.
This, in turn, causes the father who is present to become angry, and even the children to become angry at the father who is present. This is a social construct, and many people may not aggressively challenge it because they are trying to live from day to day.
Work, raise children, care for elderly family members, pay bills/manage economic stressors while trying to have their children understand especially Black males, what to do when stopped by the police. Trying to stay alive overcomes challenging narratives on many occasions.
Trying to stay alive overcomes challenging narratives on many occasions.
CASSIUSLife: Lastly, what are some of the ways Black men can protect their mental health and support each other?
And since masculinity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, what are some of the ways you think that Black women can help with some of the crises befalling Black men? It sometimes feels like there is an unspoken gender war when one doesn’t exist without the other.
Dr. Ryan McQueen: Communication. Not being vulnerable but being available. Having a strong and anchoring support system. Listening. Understanding all aspects of a situation. Taking a step back when feeling increased emotion and returning to the conversation later. Seeking mental health help and support when needed and remaining open-minded about help. Anyone can benefit from psychotherapy even when they feel they may not need it.
[Black women and men can also support] each other through issues and concerns. The Black community is here to support each other, not just one gender or the other. For Black male children, it might be a matter of finding mentors/mentoring programs. For Black males in general: communication, applying rules, listening, and encouraging open discussion about emotions/feelings.
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