Speaking out about a taboo subject
By Antoine Craigwell
Nationwide, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community on Friday, Apr 15, 2010, commemorated a day of silence – vowing not to speak for one 24-hour period as a unified protest action in solidarity with other LGBT and against the treatment members of the community receive from a majority of people. This day of silence was also an occasion to create a crack in the reluctance to speak about depression and its debilitating effects in the Black gay community.
In the Black community, there is significant resistance to addressing depression. Without regard to ethnic origin, whether African American, Afro Caribbean, or African, the cultural belief is that one does not speak his business, especially his personal business about himself, out of the family. Equally, in many Black families, with the emphasis on masculinity and survival in challenging times, including dealing with racial discrimination, speaking out about one’s inner feelings is often regarded as a weakness or a significant flaw, to be strengthen or eradicated, at all costs and by all means. Therefore, many Black gay men are caught in a vicious cycle: it is taboo to talk about what’s bothering him, and if he should try, he would be branded as weak.
A New Jersey-based journalist, Glenn Townes, when he lived in Kansas City, MO, wrote about his own depression, in “Tale of a Wounded Warrior: One Man’s Battle Against Depression” for the Infinity Institute International, Inc., Website, “I still find there’s a strong stigma to African Americans and therapy, particularly for brothers. Tell someone you’re seeing a shrink and they just may haul off and hit you with: “Man, you must be crazy.” But I think it’s just the opposite: Sometimes you’d have to be crazy not to seek therapy.”
Writing for the New York Amsterdam News in May 2008, Townes reported that the Depression Is Real Coalition, a collection of mental health agencies, was formed to promote and advance discussion of this mental illness as something not to be ashamed of, with a series of public service announcements nationwide, “It is Depression.”
In fact, research has shown that the causes of depression are often a combination of biological as well as external or environmental factors.
Townes reported that David Shern, Ph.D., president of Mental Health America, a member of the coalition said, “What people may not understand is that depression is not just a matter of being in a bad mood or something that’s in a person’s mind. It’s just like any other biologically based disease and is a condition that commonly co-occurs with chronic diseases.”
The issue of depression in the Black gay community has many layers: psychosocial, socioeconomic, cultural, and racial, to name a few. Addressing one complex layer, sexuality and racial identity and their relationship to socioeconomics, Darrell Wheeler, Ph.D., professor of sociology with a specialization in HIV/AIDS issues in Black gay men at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, said, “I don’t think that we [Black gay men] have enough control over our economic destiny and how we bring together our resources around issues…about our inability to really embrace the “Blackness” and things get too anchored to the “gayness” and, without bringing all of me to the table. We have to respond to micro-aggressions as well as full-frontal discrimination based on sexual identity or on racial identity, so all of these things converge and create an environment in which we are constantly hyper vigilant in whether or not we take care of ourselves enough and sometimes those internalized experiences get manifested as external aggressions towards each other over the “sexualization” of the experience and the use of substances as a way of coping. So I think there are mental issues that have certain consequences.”
In an article, “HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Among Black Men Who Have Sex with Men: Current and Future Directions,” Gregorio Millett, MPH, senior policy advisor in the Office of National AIDS Policy and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC); David Malebranche, M.D, assistant professor, Emory University, Atlanta, GA; and John L. Peterson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, quoting from a 2004 CDC report, said that Black men who have sex with men (MSM) now account for 30 percent, the largest proportion, of all Black men diagnosed with HIV.
Addressing the psychological issues surrounding Black MSM, in a section of their article, “HIV-positive Status, HIV Risk, and HIV-Protective Behavior Factors Among Black MSM,” Millett and co-authors quoted studies done in 2002 by Crawford, et al, and in 2003 by Myers, et al, which said that, “although no psychological variables were associated with HIV status, several psychological variables were associated with sexual risk behavior among Black MSM.
“Few Black MSM studies examined associations between any of the dependent variables and HIV knowledge, mental health status, cultural beliefs, or self-esteem,” said Millett and co-authors.