Mental health in the African-American homosexual community

by Christopher Johnson and Shane Tull

A popular misconception about mental heath is that it is an absence of mental illness. However, a more accurate definition is observed along a spectrum. This spectrum allows for a definitive perspective that mental health is a state of achieved mental functioning, leading individuals to productive activities, healthy relationships, and flexibility for adapting to change and managing adversity. The presence of illness causes suffering in maintaining personal well-being, relationships with family members and others, and an inability to contribute to society. Thus mental health comes in to question.  Most severe mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. However, scientists also believe that stress plays a role in the onset of pathology and the course of the disorder. The spectrum of pathology is no one’s fault.

Mental health practitioners, who work with adult children dealing with conflicts, listen to and observe clients who do not understand that some of their basic needs went unmet as young children. These clients lack a comprehension of how to resolve or identify the origins of their conflicts. As this occurs, adult children have a constant need to belong, or have power, freedom, or fun, thereby, wearing themselves down mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically. The results are often to the detriment of their mental health.

Little attention has been given to the psychological and emotional development of African-American homosexual men. Young African American homosexuals face racial and sexual stigmatization that can be detrimental to development of identity during the stages of life span development. Studies have indicated that poor development correlates to poor self esteem, depression, suicidality, and other high risk behaviors. Unfortunately, experiences of oppression and discrimination, including blocked access to resources, remain ongoing experiences in the lives of young African American homosexual males. When the life experiences of African American homosexual males are examined, it becomes evident that these individuals must contend with challenges of managing dual minority status (Crawford, 2002).

We as black gay men must begin to look at our mental health and all those areas or parts of our lives that have had an impact on it. While many people and things have had had a hand in shaping our mental health we can no longer abdicate the responsibility to others to fix it. We need to review our past, consider our present day circumstances and begin to forge a path to a brighter future for ourselves. In order for this to happen we will need to come to terms with a large number of social ills that have had an impact. Some of those things we can accept no responsibility for and others are well within our control.

No one can refute that racism and homophobia are widespread in America and that the two have wreaked havoc on the lives of black gay men who live in this country. The psychological impact of living as a racial-ethnic and sexual minority has presented a number of problems for the African American gay community including depressive moods, anxiety disorders, and suicide, which have been found to be high among young African-American gay men in comparison to European-American homosexuals or heterosexual American boys and young men, increasing 105% between 1980 and 1995 (CDC, 1998). Higher rates of heavy substance use (i.e., alcohol and cocaine) have been found among young African American gay men in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts (Richardson, Meyers, Bing, & Satz, 1997). And, while the incidence of AIDS has decreased dramatically among European American gay men, decreases among young African American gay men have been minimal (CDC, 1999).

Experts in the field agree that collectively, these data indicate that young African American gay males living in America are at considerable risk of physical and emotional health problems. In an attempt to address this issue, clinicians working for agencies that provide services to African-American gay men have collaborated to address the psychological and emotional issues affecting them in today’s society. The dialog centers on clinical experiences addressing the mental health needs of our community. These professionals draw on a collective of experience over two decades. In doing so, a number of factors become evident that affect the mental health of the African American male. These factors span the social and emotional breath of our society, including issues of self-esteem, role models, family and community support. The consequences of being black and gay become a dual stigma for the black gay man. As clinicians continue to share their experiences, others issues become apparent, including drug abuse, incarceration, psychiatric disorders, and poor interpersonal relationships.

It is this racism and homophobia that have left us searching for affirming and supportive environments that would allow us to express our racial and sexual identities. We as black men have had images of masculinity superimposed on us by society at large and within our own environment by the black community. We have been rejected by our fathers, mothers, brothers, sister and the spiritual community as well as others. These traumatic experiences have had an impact on our emotional well being. It is also these traumatic experiences that are directly related to the isolation and marginalization that many of us feel today. It is that very isolation and marginalization that often times have driven us to engage in self-destructive and maladaptive behaviors.

For some of us those behaviors have involved abusing drugs and alcohol and this includes isolated incidences of abuse as well as more chronic debilitating problems with substances. For many us no cocktail would be complete without the real live cock and often times in our altered state we have made poor choices around sex or, more correctly, the way in which we are going to have that sex.

The challenges that we face with drugs, alcohol and sex must be looked at very closely. Often these things are used as escapes from the pressures of daily living. For many of us over- indulgence in the use of drugs, alcohol and sex is symptomatic of an underlying depression. Untreated depression is a real problem in the black gay community and a problem that has gone without sufficient attention from mental health professionals and government, which has historically under funded programs geared towards our community. And we, ourselves have ignored our own growing mental health needs and this is something that must change if we are to survive as individuals and a community.

We as a group of mental health professionals realize that these are challenging issues for the community. We are also not surprised that depression is a serious problem in the black gay community. Black gay men have lived through the war of A.I.D.S, oppression, poverty, discrimination, rejection and isolation. These are some of the most traumatic experiences that people can face and experiences that are emotionally crippling. Unfortunately, many of us have had to deal with all of these issues simultaneously. While H.I.V/A.I.D.S treatment has improved the outcomes for human life treatment has in no way ended that war for us. In fact it has added more to an already over taxed emotional state. It is likely that many black gay men suffer from some form of survivor’s guilt, which is also likely to manifest itself as depression. There is also grief. Not only are we grieving for those we have lost through death but those we have lost as a result of having to reveal our lives to people who may not have had prior knowledge of our sexual orientation before the H.I.V/A.I.D.S epidemic.

Mental health is complex and there are no easy answers. We as black gay men have many challenges to overcome and we can only face those challenges if we are healthy and whole. We can no longer wait for others to help. We must take action. This means that we will need to form our own groups and reach out to the existing providers in our community and where those resources are non-existent, take action to see that our needs get met.

It is also acknowledged that formal therapy and mental health services are not for everyone. For those that seek alternative means we would encourage the development of a supportive network of people. Emotions and feelings are an important part of human social life, an expression of relationship and human connectedness, which everyone needs.

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