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‘Tough Guy Syndrome’ is bad for mental health

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In 2013, a group of researchers tried to solve a problem when it comes to understanding mental health for African Americans.

Research that was focused on African Americans with mental illness had been increasing, they found, but there wasn’t enough to address the differences between how men and women differed in beliefs, attitudes and coping.

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: 1-800-273-8255 or chat online

Their findings, published in Nursing Research, concluded men were less likely to believe professional treatment could help control mental illness. They also found young men were much less likely than young women to seek help and be open about their mental health issues.

Why is that?

Gender roles affect mental health, too

George Middleton, a therapist, thinks part of the problem is the idea that Black men have to be tough. Toughness, he said, is on one end of the spectrum of responses to trauma — an “eff everybody” attitude, as he describes it.

This has been on display across the country since May with protests. Organizers and participants sometimes talk about how exhausting it is to be on the front lines of a fight that’s never gone away. That’s a catch-22, Middleton said, because unchanged conditions make many think they just need to fight harder.

“The more you stand up for yourself, the more you speak for yourself, the more you’re perceived as angry and militant,” he said.

Harold Neighbors, a professor at Michigan State University, wrote for the Association of American Medical Colleges last year about what he called “Tough Guy Syndrome.”

“Much too often, we African American men advise each other to ‘man up’ to personal problems,” he wrote. “… We must stop telling each other to ‘man up.’ And we must start telling the truth about how we really feel.”

Brandon Warren, a Ball State student who became an anti-violence activist in Indianapolis after his friend was killed in 2017, said it can be dangerous for Black men to think they have to be so strong while not letting any emotions show.

“You’re pushed out to the world thinking you have to be stronger than all, that you have to be a certain figure to the world when you do not,” he said.

Warren fully understands the consequences. The pressure of being a young activist — along with a bad experience during initiation with a fraternity — led to him try to take his own life in January. Before that, he was diagnosed with major depression, impulsivity, anxiety, PTSD and bipolar disorder.

Warren said there seems to be more opportunities now to talk about mental health but participation is still too low. He hopes sharing his story and trying to convince others that mental health is “rooted in everything” can help change that.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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