Holding his son, Harold Hughes thought of all he’d pass down. His tech startup was part of the equation. The rest felt a bit more unsettling.
“My trauma,” Hughes said, “he can inherit that, too.”
It was somewhere between the birth of his son, the death of his father and the shooting of Philando Castile that Hughes started thinking about his own mental health.
He knew that if he was unwell, that would affect his son as he ages. Hughes, who lives in Austin, Texas, needed a healthier relationship with his own thoughts and feelings in order to raise a healthy Black boy in a world that discriminates, he said.
Slowly, an increasing number of Black men are seeking professional therapists and engaging with other tools like meditation, mindfulness, and massages to take care of their mental health. They’re trying to counteract the hypermasculinity and racism they’re forced to navigate each day, and avoid the most severe consequences of neglecting mental health issues.
Black men are four times more likely to die by suicide than Black women. It’s among the leading causes of death for young Black men. Other research suggests that while education and income decrease risk of depression for white people and Black women, that is not the case for Black men. The high societal expectations placed on them, and perpetuated by media depictions, can often make them not reach out for help.
“It makes you build a wall subconsciously,” said Eric Warren Jr., a Los Angeles-based therapist. “For so long historically, we had to be extremely strong.”
Brenten Sims, 32, has begun to push back against those expectations through creating a Black Men Heal Yoga class in Chesapeake, Virginia.
A safe space for Black men. A healing space for Black men. An honest place for Black men, the website reads. It’s a yoga designed specifically for men of color, Sims says.
“As Black men,” he says, “we aren’t taught to try everything.”
Stress melts with each exhale. Stiffness surrenders. Mindfulness, and maybe even peace, arrives on the mat.
“Black men deserve to experience it,” says Sims, who finds that men often don’t pause as life whirls around them. “We walk around with intenseness about us all the time.”
That tension bleeds into both physical and mental health outcomes for Black men. The cumulative burden of chronic stress, often caused by navigating anti-Black racism, wears down their bodies, leaving them at higher risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, untreated mental health conditions, and other issues.
It was a lost job in 2021 that spiraled Sims into a depression that ultimately pushed him to engage with mental health and yoga. And like many other Black men, his symptoms manifested differently than how professionals are trained to spot it. For Sims, depression showed up as substance abuse, hypersexuality, self-doubt, and overperformance, he says. “You don’t matter,” the voice in his head kept saying. The narrative others reinforced to him about how a Black man’s life was always going to be hard was crushing him.
Mood disorders like depression can go underdiagnosed among Black men because they are less likely to admit to feeling sad, but are more likely to report irritability, anger outbursts, or substance use.
Liquor stores tend to be more readily available in Black neighborhoods than open air parks, which affects how Black men manage their stress, says Derek Griffith, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Men’s Health Equity. People use what’s in their community, he says.
“If you’re drinking because you’re sad or depressed, that’s OK,” says Griffith about societal expectations, “sometimes more OK than crying.”
With a few extra hours left in the day, men are grappling with whether they work more, rest, or be productive with a task like working out, he says. They tend to invest more in working harder, but it may not be worthwhile. It can feel like failing the family when men prioritize rest, Griffith says.
Sims exchanged the $2,000 left on the health saving plan from the job he’d lost for 20 therapy sessions. And his journey culminated in a commitment to his well-being, including the yoga class.
To keep it free, Sims raises money through social media and contracts with various yoga instructors. He has organized 10 classes so far, served more than 50 men and brought in close to $2,000 in donations. At first, folks were hesitant, Sims says. Now, he often hears from men wanting to keep the classes going, saying they had no idea how much they needed a space like that.
The Unique Challenges Men Face
“We haven’t really thought about the unique challenges of Black men,” Griffith says. A major challenge is that when thinking about gender, people tend to be referring to women, and when thinking about men, Black men are often excluded, leaving them on the margins. It, in some ways, means their needs fly under the radar.
Can I take care of my kids? Can I get a job and hold a job? Can it provide for my loved ones?
“Racism provides a context,” says Griffith, “and it makes it more difficult to do those things.”
Warren, the therapist, often thinks about the prison system, and believes that if the men within it had had someone to talk to in their darkest moments, they might not be there. But, the culture reinforces talking as weak, so Black men often opt to tough it out instead, he says.
There’s the fear, despite confidentiality agreements, that talking to the therapist might mean they’ll spread your business. That, paired with a preference for church and prayer, can keep people away from seeking help.
“Don’t limit God to the church; he gives other people gifts, too,” says Warren. “He gives people the gift to be able to preach. He gives therapists the gift to be able to help people process.”
Insurance can also be a barrier for those looking to start counseling. It’s not like walking into a barber shop and taking the next chair, Warren says. It can be difficult to navigate different types of insurance coverage, how they work, and the therapist you’re interested in working with. It takes a lot of time to look through options and find the right one, which could require switching therapists after a few sessions if they aren’t the right fit.
Torrian Baskerville, 36, switched after not feeling like he was getting what he needed. Now, he sees his therapist — a Black woman — every Monday. It was after he started having chest pains despite being otherwise healthy, when his doctor asked, “What are you stressing about? What’s on your mind?”
He realized how much was piling on. There were the challenges with his biological dad. He was exploring his sexuality, and discovering he is attracted to the same gender. He was trying to get some freedom and agency from his parents as he attended an all-boys Catholic high school in New Jersey. In between were the normal woes of being a teenager.
“There were several moments in my life that were pivotal, that required me to go to therapy,” said Baskerville, who has battled self-doubt and suicidal thoughts. Being a Black man walking on the streets in this country brings with it a stress that causes trauma, he said.
“All Black men, particularly Black queer men, should have a therapist,” Baskerville says.
Hughes, the dad, started going to therapy regularly.
He also taps into monthly massages and facials. He cooks comfort food, watches his favorite shows, and works out daily. He shuts down his laptop after work hours, reminding himself that he is not his work. And, he meditates, too.
It’s all intended to contrast the payrolls and taxes he is accountable for. The external pressures can feel suffocating. Some of the burden Hughes once felt has eased since he started therapy. Lingering feelings of doubt and guilt have morphed into calmness. His fuse is less short. He is able to show up better for others in his life, he said, and has a better toolkit to address external obstacles.
Hughes worries about the number of Black men living with high functioning depression and anxiety without knowing it because of how differently the symptoms can show up between people.
“You’re expected to be tough. You’re expected to not show emotion,” Hughes says. “You’re expected to not ask for help. You’re expected to be resourceful, figure things out, and make a way out of no way.”
That feeling pushes Black men into isolation, placing a shame around confiding in friends, family, and therapy, he said.
“It’s so engrained from such a young age that you have to actively unlearn it.”