National Stress Awareness Month is almost over, but Black men and mental health hangs on for May

The failure to properly manage stress serves as a critical underlying factor in the poor health outcomes for Black men.

Black men have the lowest life expectancy. The National Institute of Health (NIH) maintains the health of Black men is a public health issue. 

Heart disease, homicide, and hypertension represent three of the 10 leading causes of death for Black men. With each causation, stress is often a primary driving force. 

Unmanaged stress contributes to high blood pressure, which can distress the heart leading to strokes and heart attacks. Living in poverty in highly violent environments while experiencing the physiologic responses of those social stressors too often serves as the impetus for the high homicide rate experienced by Black men. 

Addressing the critical need for people to learn how to effectively manage their stress, the NIH earmarked April as National Stress Awareness Month. Their mission is to bring attention to and give citizens strategies to combat and reduce the negative impact of stress. 

“Managing stress is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. Knowing how to manage stress can improve mental and physical well-being as well as minimize exacerbation of health-related issues,” according to the National Institutes of Health. 

Empirical data suggests that Black men experience a cumulative degree of pervasive psychological pressures, often resulting in one life stressor serving as a barrier to managing an equally challenging annoyance. Some of those stressors give rise to the following:

  • Homicide– one of the leading causes of death for Black men.
  • Suicide– Black men died by suicide four times the rate of Black women.
  • Depression– seeking therapy has an attached stigma. 

According to research, Black men seek out mental health services less than half the amount of non-Hispanic White men. 

Work coercions and financial obligations are the more frequent tension-filled influences weighing on the emotional and psychological spirits of Black men. 

“We are constantly under pressure from the world to be employed and yet denied access to providing for our families,” explained Calvin Mann, a Detroit-based national advocate for Black boys and fathers.  

Stressors run the gamut for Black men but shift in priority depending upon age. Marriage, the infrequency of sex and having to initiate it, kids, not feeling heard or understood, and trying to live up to everyone’s expectations to include self-expectation were shared by a group of BLAM (Black Love And Marriage) husbands as their predominant stressors. For more senior Black men, health concerns for self, family, and friends occupy those constant concerning thoughts. 

“The realization that I have spent more time in this life than I have left and facing mortality is always a concern for me,” explained Darryl Towns, a former representative of the 54th Assembly District in the New York State Legislature.

The persistent pain of marginalization and disrespect, united with centuries of emasculation leaves many Black men feeling the strains of unhealthy and destructive stress daily.  

“This country strives to keep the Black family subjugated through its attempts to emasculate the thoughts, ideas, pocketbook, and very being of the Black man,” explained Dr. Michelle Edwards, consultant, adjunct professor, and executive coach.

Jason Wilson, author of “Cry Like a Man,” and “Battle Cry,” maintains Black men carry their trauma and stress like badges of honor. Dr. Jean R. Moise, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, agrees.

“Due to the collective, historical, oppressive, traumatic experience we all share, we tend to believe we have to persevere, go at it alone and not trust anyone enough to show our pain and vulnerability. It is part of our historical DNA. That posture results in undue, continuous pain, anxiety, and stress. On top of that, there’s a negative stigma in our community against expressing psychological stress and emotional problems,” said Moise.  

Education, noted to be the great equalizer, represents additional pockets of stress for Black boys and men. Racial fatigue shadow Black males throughout their educational realities. 

“We are emphatically aware of the poor treatment we receive. It starts in the boy’s removal from early education,” adds Mann.

From preschool to Ph.D. studies, Black boys and men must navigate stress clothed in everyday microaggressions at the hands of educational institutions. Black men are introduced to stress as young as four years of age. Research maintains that Black boys represented more than half of the 17,000 preschool students suspended or expelled nationwide in 2021. 

Ricco Hall, graduating May 2023 from a Private White Institution (PWI) with an education doctorate in Human and Organizational Learning, encountered his share of stress pursuing his PH.D. 

“Stress has shown up in my pursuit of my doctorate,” explained Hall. “The nuanced or subconscious subtleties and microaggressions that are constantly experienced and not acknowledged by either party, me or the offender. The issue is that by being a Black man with less social capital and leverage, it is the unspoken yet expected role that the onus is on me to yield my feelings to appease, safeguard, and regard the feelings of institutional agents over mine.”

The tentacle of stress possesses a far-reaching impact on the physical, emotional, and psychological health of Black men.  

“Stressful situations can also cause or exacerbate mental health conditions, most commonly, anxiety and depression, which require access to health care,” according to NIH.

Adrian Quarles has learned how to manage his stress, and maintains he’s used stress as an agent for success. However, his achievements did not occur without emotional distress serving its allotment of devastation in his life. 

“Stress has negatively affected my health at times. It’s caused me chest pains, sleeplessness, depression and exhaustion. I’ve encountered stress in the classroom, on stage and while writing,” said Quarles, educator, poet, actor and playwright. “But when I handle it correctly, it provides a feeling of achievement.”

Having to manage daily anxieties, Black men frequently find themselves in the eye of some emotional storm, unable to find suitable cover. In those moments, Dr. Greg Hall, medical director of University Hospitals of Cleveland, Cutler Center for Men, advises men to take time and breath when trapped in the moment.  

“Slow and deep breathing is a great way to calm your system down. Methodical deep breathing slows your pulse, increases blood oxygenation, and allows for better psychological acceptance of whatever situation you may encounter,” said Hall.

Effectively managing stress begins with being mindful and understanding that it only requires small, conscious shifts in everyday activities. 

  • Exercise ignites endorphins, those neurotransmitters known for making people feel good.
  • Diets with  nutritionally-dense food reduces stress hormones attacking the brain
  • Meditation, or the process of stopping and breathing with intentionality, helps declutter the mind of its negative thoughts. 
  • Sleep lowers high levels of cortisol—the primary stress hormone that encourages the fight or flight behavior
  • Laughter stimulates relaxation.

Hall advises taking baths, not showers because it is a way to reduce stress. 

“After a long and stressful day, people discount the relaxation value of a hot bath. Few Black men admit to taking baths because showers are so fast and efficient, but they do not allow for mental decompression that a bath provides,” explains Hall. 

Additional methodologies for managing stress includes doing what brings you joy. 

“Good coping strategies are finding support in pursuing passions, interests, and ambitions with other men with similar, shared experiences. Those channels can be through sports, fraternities, social clubs, Community organizing, and church,” said Moise. “It’s a documented fact that Black men who use these strategies are healthier mentally and physically and have less stress and anxiety.”


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