Supporting ourselves and each other during times of crisis

We are amid an unprecedented health crisis in America. The US has not experienced a health pandemic on this scale since 2009’s H1N1 health crisis. The uncertainty around access to testing, concerns for loved ones as well as the calls for preventative measures such as social distancing can contribute to significant anxiety and worry. The following discussion highlights the psychological challenges associated with managing the stress of a health crisis as well as strategies to cope (and help others to cope) with navigating the day to day tasks of staying healthy or addressing illness, maintaining employment, and caring for/supporting loved ones.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety is the most common mental health issues experienced by individuals in the US (2017). The experience of anxiety can take many forms but typically includes symptoms such as significant worry, restlessness, and irritability as well as physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, and upset stomach. With the current health pandemic, many individuals may be experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety that have contributed to chronic fear, helplessness, and feeling overwhelmed. These symptoms may be impacting daily functioning and effectively coping with the very real stress associated with the health crisis. Strategies to cope with significant anxiety include the following: (1) mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, (2) using apps to manage anxiety such as Headspace, Rootd, or Calm, (3) exercising, (4) reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, (5) limiting exposure to news coverage, and (6) seeing a therapist via telepsychology.

 During this challenging time, we may see our friends and family struggling with their own anxiety and fears about the health crisis. We will reach out to help but may be unsure of how to support our loved ones as they try to cope. There are many barriers that can stand in our way such as not knowing what to say, saying unhelpful things (e.g., we all go through tough times, just snap out of it), or not knowing what resources to connect your loved one too. However, there are many helpful strategies that you can use to provide support to your loved one. Show your support to your loved one by listening to them and asking what you can do to help (rather than assuming you know what they need). Also, speak candidly about your concerns and be prepared to connect your loved one to resources such as therapy or social support organizations (nami.org, apa.org, or your state psychological association).  

Lastly, in addition to supporting our loved ones who are experiencing significant stress and anxiety, many of us may be tasked with taking care of a loved one who has contracted COVID-19. The stress of supporting a friend or taking care of an ill loved one can lead to care-giver burnout. According to the American Association for Retired Persons, care-giver burnout can occur for a number of reasons including: conflicting demands, feeling out of control, and unrealistic expectations (2019). You can reduce the risk of care-giver burn out by finding opportunities to give yourself small breaks, spending time with friends (remember social distance doesn’t mean social isolation), and seeking out support groups.   

These next few weeks will be challenging both physically and mentally. You may experience bouts of anxiety and sadness due to feeling overwhelmed or isolated. These feelings are normal. Remember you can develop coping strategies to manage your experience and to support others during this difficult time. Ask for help, use your resources, and utilize spaces of support and affirmation. We will get through this together.

Stuck in the house for a few weeks with your kid(s)? Ten activities you can do to raise their Black consciousness

  • Write a book report on a lesser known Black historical figure
  • Watch a movie and use discussion questions to critique how Blackness is portrayed in the media or analyze the life of a Black historical figure
  • Create an affirmation jar
  • Engage in a discussion about Black figures in business and finance and create a business plan for a company
  • Develop a family tree and call family elders to complete the various branches
  • Create a 1,3, or 5 year education, career, and financial plan using a S.M.A.R.T. goal framework
  • Develop a vocabulary lesson about words such as Afrocentric, Pan-Africanism, Black Nationalism. Womanist, Ubuntu, Pedagogy, Oppression, Privilege, etc.
  • Do an internet search for the origins of common Black sayings and traditions (e.g., jumping the broom)
  • Develop a list of Black owned small business and support through online shopping
  • Create a poem or collage about what Blackness means to you

Want to empower our Black youth? Here’s how…..

  • Love them
  • Listen to them
  • Talk with them and don’t lecture them
  • Speak up for them, even when they are not around
  • Seek to understand them, THEN be understood by them
  • Protect them
  • Create and build with them (as well as for them)
  • Strengthen your relationships with them
  • Build up their dreams don’t try to tear them down
  • Give them H.O.P.E (Healing, Opportunities, Purpose, and Empathy)

Self-activism: Reclaiming the voice of the Black male

There are two wars being waged against Black males. The first is an external war against the negative stereotypes, discrimination, racism, and oppressive policies placed upon Black males. This external war contributes to societies limited perception of positive Black manhood. The second is an internal war in which the Black male is fighting his own belief in the negativity of Black manhood that conflicts with his historical and lived experience. The greatest causality in this war has been the powerful voice of Black males. Society has been inundated with images of Black males as being dumb, deviant, and dangerous. These images have contributed to the creation of an environment in which Black males feel hopeless and powerless. In addition, a posture of apathy ensues that manifests as a pseudo mental paralysis. The voice of these males to share their stories has been silenced through threats of harm or death, imprisonment, drug use, and limited access to employment/ educational opportunities.

The key to the reclamation of this lost voice lies in the Black male’s journey towards a coherent knowledge of self that honors both the realities and resiliency in his situation. As the African Proverb states, “if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do you no harm.” To regain
their voice, Black males must reconcile the conflict between the socially constructed negative experience of Black manhood with their own internal definition that has been developed historically and supplemented through experience. For example, a young Black male may bear witness in media to images of Black males as innately unproductive members of society destined for institutional slavery within the confines of the prison system. These images can influence the young man’s thinking about his own Blackness as a sort of “stain” that he must distance himself from (via racial self-hatred expressed by oppressing other Black males) or that he must hyper identify with (via a hyper endorsement of a traditional masculine values such as anger, limited emotional expression, use of aggression, hyper sexuality). These coping strategies deny the Black male the ability to define his experience of Blackness for himself.

The cultivation of a sense of one’s Blackness can serve as a resiliency factor in the face of clashing depictions of Black manhood. At the core of this resiliency are three components: knowing one’s history, making one’s own history, and sharing that history with others. Black males can reconcile the conflict within and conquer the impact of societal oppression by developing an understanding of where and who they come from. This will in turn serve as foundation for them to have the confidence in their own abilities to positively impact the world. Lastly, combining their historical knowledge with their lived experience, these Black males will be able to effectively communicate
and advocate for themselves and their communities.

Things to Say (and not say) to a grieving Black male

Things to Say

  • How can I support you?
  • What do you need from me?
  • It’s ok to not be ok
  • Asking for help doesn’t make you weak
  • What are you doing for self-care?
  • I appreciate you
  • Thank you for being you
  • How can I help hold you accountable for taking care of yourself?
  • Feel what you need to feel

Things not Say

  • Man up
  • You’ll get over it
  • It could be worse
  • You need to think about other people
  • Men don’t cry
  • I understand what your going through
  • Put your head down and keep working
  • If I were you I would…..
  • What will other people think
  • Don’t go to therapy…”that’s for White people,” “it’s too expensive,” “it’s not something men do”

10 ways to help Black males cope with grief and loss

1.) Be present 

2.) Tell them it’s ok to not be ok and that this is not a negative reflection of their masculinity 

3.) Validate emotional expression 

4.) Encourage vulnerability 

5.) Connect to sources of long term support  

6.) Check in regularly don’t let them only hear from you one time 

7.) Dig deeper past the “I’m fine” or “I’m ok” 

8.) Acknowledge the meaningfulness of the relationship that was lost 

9.) Affirm their strength and resiliency 

10.) Constantly let them know you care 

The Black male identity: Conflict and reconciliation

There has been a centuries long intentional effort to sexualize and create fear of the Black male body. This effort has been significantly influenced by popular cultures consistent portrayal of the average Black male as dumb, deviant, and dangerous. The consistent negative portrayal of the Black male image has been efficiently condensed into a limited number of archetypes such as Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mandingo, and the Magical Negro. Additionally, society’s expectations of Black masculinity performance have been shaped by a chronic narrative that describes Black males as hyperaggressive, hypersexual, stoic, and physically imposing.

Many Black males have bought into this narrative as their only perceived source of social power. Based on this phenomenon, society, with some complicity from Black males, has reduced the complex experience of navigating racialized masculinity (which would need volumes of text to appropriately capture) to a hand full of stock phrases such as “the angry Black male,” “the scary Black male,” “the absent Black male,” and “the dangerous Black male.”  As Black males have attempted to adhere to these rigid expectations of Black masculinity performance, in effort to claim popular culture sanctioned social power, they have encountered significant physical, psychological, and relational challenges. Furthermore, the challenges associated with these expectations are exacerbated by the experience of racism, race-related stress, and racial trauma. Lastly, Black males have been taught across the generations insufficient and ineffective coping strategies to manage the challenges associated with their intersecting racial and gender identities.

The combination of societal expectations, peer influences, chronic exposure to limited a narrative about the Black male experience, and the potential physical and psychological consequences of these challenges has added significant pressure for the development of a meaningful Black masculinity. Specifically, to reduce the negative social and health impact of racism and discrimination the Black male’s identity development must help him resolve the conflict of differing expectations of his racialized masculinity and reconcile his maleness and Blackness into a coherent sense of self. There are three paths towards identity reconciliation that the Black male can take: the development of a (1) ridged unintegrated Black masculinity, (2) an unstructured unintegrated Black masculinity or (3) an integrated Black masculinity.

A ridged unintegrated Black masculinity highlights the Black male’s attempt to cope with the negative expectations associated with a racialized masculinity by embracing the faulty images projected on to them. These Black males are negatively affected by social oppression (e.g., racism) and become conduits through which negative beliefs about the Black male experience are shared and reinforced. A rigid unintegrated Black masculinity represents an inflexible obedience to a loosely defined racialized masculinity. An unstructured unintegrated Black masculinity highlights Black males who develop masculine identities not rooted in a culturally influenced self-concept. These Black males believe the best coping strategy for racism is “denial” and racialized masculinity identity flexibility. Black males with an unstructured unintegrated Black masculinity are negatively impacted by social oppression and a shared “denial” of systemic racial issues in society.

An integrated Black masculinity highlights Black males who have learned to cope with the negative expectations associated with their racialized masculinity by developing their critical thinking skills regarding the consumption of media, adhere to a flexible expression and performance of masculinity, embrace an Afrocentric foundation to their understanding of their Blackness (e.g., collectivism vs individualism, cooperation vs competition, emotional expression vs stoicism), and utilize adaptive coping strategies for the experience of racism and race related stress.