Do Black Men Care About Their Health?

Originally published January 23, 2017 on Blavity

As a kid, sometimes you feign being sick, but what’s worse is when you are actually sick or something doesn’t feel right and someone thinks you’re faking it. You almost have to prove your symptoms to your parents and teachers to get the help you need.

What happened to that childhood honesty? Once you become an adult, it seems like there are two ways to handle illness.

The first way is to publicly fight it. Someone like cyclist Lance Armstrong comes to mind. He found out he had stage three cancer and overcame it in a little over a year. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to fight for your life.  Folks who are brave enough to remain in high spirits and say, “Yes, I have cancer and I am not going down without a fight,” are inspiring.

The second approach is to act like the doctor didn’t tell you anything you don’t already know, to ignore the recommendations for treatment or to get caught up in conspiracies as to why you are suffering. Unfortunately, the second approach is common in the black community, and even more prevalent among black men.

A study conducted by faculty and a doctoral student at Rutgers University surveyed 250 men on their masculinity. The survey questions asked about manhood and what they look for when choosing medical care. Findings showed that “men who had traditional beliefs about masculinity- such as showing bravery, courage, and emotional restraint- were more likely to ignore their health problems or delay acting on them.” The highest scorers on the masculinity scale were less inclined to share their symptoms or medical conditions with a doctor.  If there is any group of men that has been made to represent hypermasculinity or to embody bravery, courage, and emotional restraint, it’s black men.

We should all know the story of being black in America. Here’s a quick history lesson: enslavement, “freedom,” Jim Crow, mass incarceration and of course the present- which represents a combination of all the aforementioned events.  Historical adversity shouldn’t depress you. It’s not to say that huge achievements’ weren’t made. Black is excellence. Black men are beautiful, but they’ve also been through the ringer. Not just the poor ones, the rich and successful ones too. No one who’s black is immune to prejudice or racism unless you’re Raven Symoné.  While the media has you thinking black men only die at the hands of police and “black on black” crime (whatever that is), a black man is dying right now because he ignored the voices in his head, skipped a routine check-up or decided to become his own pharmacist.

The rates at which brothers are dying or suffering from treatable, manageable illnesses are alarming. The death rate of cancer for black men is 24 percent higher than in white men. Black males struggling with epilepsy are at an increased risk for Sudden Unexpected Death from Epilepsy (SUDEP). When it comes to mental health, black men are more likely than white men to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.

Medical issues can be disparaging. The idea of having to take on another hardship in addition to the everyday struggle isn’t desirable. It reminds me of a conversation about intersectionality with a friend who identifies as black and gay. He shared that when he came out to his family they asked, “you already have one strike against you, why choose another?” Sexuality should never be considered a strike, nor should illness.

So what’s the real problem? Is it that black men are too proud to admit they don’t feel well? Sometimes. Is it that being black is already too much? Perhaps. The biggest problem though is procuring culturally competent care from a doctor or healer who understands.

The definition of culturally competent care is “the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients.”  A culturally competent doctor will understand that in many cases when a black man knocks on their door, they may be dealing with pressure from external factors, even if they want treatment. Doctors should anticipate their patient’s thoughts. “I don’t want to burden my family.” “I need to put food on the table.” “The last thing the world needs is another black man with X.” “I hope this doctor ain’t trying to kill me.” Culturally adept medical services will consider historical experiences, economic factors, and spiritual beliefs while simultaneously educating a patient on how to improve and preserve their health.

As a community, we must advocate for accessible medical professionals and facilities that consider the social determinants of health when tending to black male patients, and black patients across the board. However, before we advocate, it is also our responsibility to make sure we understand that the social determinants of health affect how we view “being sick.” It doesn’t equate to weakness, even though it may be uncomfortable. That thinking is what stops our men and all of us from getting the help we need. In a way, it’s uplifting to understand how our culture affects our health. Health is wealth, don’t waste it.