By: Dr. Terrance Weeden, Contributing Writer
My fellow Black men,
I urge you to speak up about your mental health. As Minority Mental Health Awareness Month winds to an end, let us begin to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community.
I know that being a Black man in America can be exhausting. It’s difficult to deal with the emotional stress and anxiety that we face as we are perceived as threats when we simply walk down the street, drive our cars, go for a morning jog or bike ride, or ride public transportation. And the fear and anxiety invoked within us when we interact with police, the emotional trauma we experience when watching or hearing our brethren being victimized in acts of gun violence, knowing that our lives continue to be dismissed and devalued and our communities, is taxing.
We feel the weight of the world on our shoulders as we try to provide for our loved ones while confronting structural racism upheld by centuries of anti-Black ideology. And, as we navigate societal injustices towards us, society also reinforces ideas of toxic masculinity: man up, never cry, never show your emotions. But do we ever create time or space to talk about how we deal with all of the stress that comes with being a Black man in America?
As a physician, I am well aware that there are many socioeconomic barriers that prevent Black men from accessing health care, let alone access to affirming mental health professionals. I would be remiss if I do not acknowledge the distrust of the healthcare system and the stigma of mental health within the Black community.
As a Black man, I know that it is not easy to allow yourself to be vulnerable and talk about your feelings with someone. I can relate to the fact that we sometimes allow our emotions to build up over time until they reach a boiling point, which is not a healthy way to deal with stress.
As a Black gay man, I know what it is like to experience emotional trauma, racism, discrimination, and fetishization.
As a Christian, the church taught me to only rely on my faith and that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains (Matthew 17:20-21). Black culture reinforced my own stigma about mental health, teaching me to avoid talking openly about anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles. However, I realized I needed help. I hope that by sharing my story and talking openly about my experiences seeking therapy, I can encourage other Black men and Black gay men to take care of themselves and do the same.
I never thought I would need therapy, but I noticed I was burned out from medicine before I even finished the entirety of my medical training. In addition to the pressure to perform well in my clinical duties while being sleep deprived and poorly compensated, I was feeling frustrated and helpless as I watched healthcare professionals exert their own biases (neglecting to acknowledge or help eradicate disparities and inequities in medicine), and I was wrestling with the imposter syndrome associated with being a Black gay male physician in training in a field predominantly represented by White men.
All of this began to take its toll on me. I compartmentalized my feelings so I could focus on accomplishing my goal of becoming the first physician in my family, but I no longer felt any emotional fulfillment from work. I dreaded going to work and interacting with patients, families, my attendings, and co-workers. I doubted my own intelligence.
All of these stressors and struggles culminated in my failure to pass my pediatric board certification exam (an exam that I believe does not reflect any physician’s clinical skills but instead seems to serve as yet another expensive obstacle to an already exorbitant career path, as well as a form of gatekeeping while our country continues to experience a physician shortage). I had to complete pseudo-remediation “learning” plans and was told to consider being tested for a learning disability (this seemed to pathologize my inability to pass my pediatric board certification exam). I grew very dissatisfied with medicine and regretted pursuing a medical career. On multiple occasions, I seriously considered walking away from medicine entirely.
Outside of my professional life at the time, I also grew frustrated with my experiences dating. I moved from Alabama to Chicago in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and had to deal with culture shock as I tried to navigate the vast dating scene in Chicago, which was quite different from Alabama. I found it difficult to invest time and energy in getting to know someone because of my demanding schedule. I also found it difficult to find consistency and reciprocity with potential partners. While it’s easy for me to advocate for others, I found that I struggled to advocate for myself.
I found healing by first finding community through volunteering my (limited) free time with non-profit organizations, joining a kickball team, and going back to church. While this helped my mental state, I still struggled with burnout and job dissatisfaction. I intentionally sought a Black male therapist because I felt like receiving advice/guidance from someone who looks like me would be more impactful.
After my first therapy session in February 2022, I felt such a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. After several months, I learned how to advocate for myself, be more assertive, and set healthy boundaries in my personal and professional life. I learned the power of saying no. I also learned how to create space for the life I want to live and to do the things I enjoy doing. I know my worth and I add tax to that! Therapy taught me to give myself grace while I endure the grueling training process for a difficult job while also adapting to life in a new city. Overall, therapy allowed me to express my own vulnerability and helped me realize my purpose in life.
My fellow Black men, there is NOTHING wrong with talking about your feelings. There is NOTHING wrong with praying and seeking therapy. You have untapped potential despite what the world may tell you or how the world may treat you. There is beauty and power in vulnerability.
Black men, I encourage you to seek therapy. It can look different for different people, whether it is through exercise, cooking, traveling, art, etc. I encourage you to find a positive emotional outlet.
We deserve to grow old.
We deserve to have joy.
We deserve a space to be vulnerable, to share our thoughts and feelings with each other.
We deserve to live in our truth.
We deserve to be loved.
Dr. Terrance Weeden (he/him)