Saturday, October 18, 2008

Black Male Mid-Life Crisis

Middle passage or midlife crisis, ages 39 – 59, is an extremely challenging time for Black men in America, a time of collapse – 'when things fall apart'. As a Black man I've learned to view the middle passage from a psychohistory perspective.

Black male midlife is a time of physical and psychological exhaustion of being overburdened by racism and overwhelmed by its effects over the passage of time; it is a time of failing health from years of substance abuse, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and stress of racial oppression; it is a time of failing mental health; a ‘melt down’ of depression, disillusionment, and addictions; a dark period of fear, worry, despair, doubt, guilt, and regret ('if I woulda-coulda syndrome').

This darkness is a psychological middle passage dilemma, not being able to go back (youthfulness) and not wanting to move forward (old age, death). As a historical term middle passage described the horrible 90-day voyage of African prisoners of war from the slave forts of West Africa to the various slave ports in America. Enslaved, packed in the unventilated hulls of slave-ships, Africans were torn away from the fabric of their lives by European colonialism; were forced to leave their lands, their cultures, and their families.

On the bottom of these death-ships, many captured Africans died from dehydration and diarrhea; many became suicidal and depressed from hopelessness and 'home sickness'. Africans faced a dilemma; they had to accept that they would probably never return to the first half of their lives living as free people in their native lands, yet they were in fear of reaching their destination in America, not knowing their fate but having a sense it would be horrible. Just as Africans in the middle passage were caught in the eye of the storm of the white supremacy hurricane, midlife Black men in America feel the full marginalizing force of this racist storm.

Black psychologist Thomas Parham stated: "The concept of the hurricane storm is an appropriate allegory for two reasons. First, the components of the storm provide a precise characterization of the psychic struggle many African Americans must confront on a daily basis. Second, the devastation of the storms is analogous to what happens when the struggle for identity congruence becomes overwhelming. We can, however, in our struggle for congruence stop seeking validation and approval from the racist oppressor. The eye of the hurricane that we seek is only an illusion, and it is not the safest place to be psychologically. Being out of the storm altogether seeking maximum congruence with ones cultural essence is ideal."

Just as our African forefathers who refused to submit to misery during the dreaded middle passage had to use this terrible experience as a second rites of passage, a time for reorienting, redefining, and rebirthing. Black men today trapped in the hulls of midlife crisis must also use this period for soul searching and digging deep to find new meaning through healing, mentoring, and living purposefully.

Suicide A Major Cause of Death For Young Black Males

Recently a friend mentioned to me that a young adult male relative of theirs had died and his family initially lied about the cause of his death; he actually died from suicide. Knowing that I specialize in providing psycho-education services to young Black males, they asked me why would a young adult black male in the prime of his life kill himself?

What my friend did not know like the majority of Blacks are unaware of, is that suicide is the third leading cause of death for African-American males ages 15 through 24. According to recent statistics Black males account for 85% of all suicide completions among African-Americans. Black males aged 20 to 24 have the highest firearm suicide rate in the US.

Black males account for 88% of all suicides among African-American youth. Over the last 10 years statistics show a rate of suicide increase of 233% for Black boys between the ages of 10 and 14. Getting back to the question my friend raised, why are so many young Black males committing suicide? They are primarily killing themselves because of depression related stress, frustration, and joblessness.

Economic exclusion decreases young adult Black males sense of self-worth and increases hopelessness. In a fairly recent report, Deindustrialization, Disadvantage, and Suicide Among Young Black Males', post-industrial cities like Pontiac suffering from tremendous job loses due to massive auto plant closings have higher suicide rates among young adult Black males.

The external depressed socioeconomic conditions of deprivation and degradation so many young adult Black males live in are often internalized and becomes psychological depression. Furthermore young adult Black males live in family and community contexts where depression has a greater impact.

According to a report the National Study of American Life published in General Psychiatry Today (March 6, 2007) found that African-Americans are significantly less likely to receive treatment for depression than Non-Hispanic whites. The study reveals the tremendous burden depression and other mental illnesses place on African-Americans. Finding includes African-Americans experience greater severity and persistence from depression; depression is more disabling and takes a greater toll on all aspects of their lives including work, relationships, social, and overall than for whites.

The International Journal of Social Psychiatry reports that racism is not only a stress burden on Blacks, but also a pathogen that generates depression. Untreated depression is the greatest predictor of suicide. As a psychotherapist too many Black men are unconsciously suffering from Adjustment Disorder (AD) which is an over-stressed based mental health issue; suicide behavior is prominent among AD patients.

Though the Black community is not paying attention to the depression and suicidal tendencies of young adult Black males there are obvious signs. One blatant indication is the huge amount of blunt cigars that are sold in almost every party store and grocery market in Black communities. Too many young adult Black males are buying these cigars to roll their weed in. Marijuana is the antidepressant drug of choice for them; smoking it daily temporarily relieves stress, tension, and depression.

Substance abuse is often a consequence of untreated depression. During the marijuana high period young adult Black males may think they feel better, but often the depression gets worse as the drug effects wear off; thus the need to smoke more marijuana to get relief. Many rap songs are laced with lyrics of suicidal thoughts and the therapeutic benefits of marijuana smoking.

In one of Tupac Shakur's most powerful rap songs, "Lord Knows', he rapped: "Another funeral! Lord knows I smoke a blunt to take the pain out, and if I weren't high I'd probably try and blow my brains out. I'm hopeless, they should've tried to kill me as a baby; now they got me trapped in the racist storm and I'm going crazy. I'm losing hope, they got me stressing; they want to see me in my casket, can the Lord forgive me."

Moreover the media daily trumpets messages to young adult black males that they are useless and endangered. In his book, Standing In The Shadows: Understanding And Overcoming Depression In Black Men, author John Head states: "We are bombarded with statistics and stereotypes telling us that of all the inevitable deaths, ours may be the most inevitable. We have a greater risk of premature death. We're more likely to die as a result of violence, particularly gun violence.

"For too many young Black males, the real and perceived vulnerability to violence is an invitation to take advantage of the easy access to guns as a means of self-protection. Possession of a gun, of course, is a major step up the ladder of risk factors for complete suicide. For young men who accept the message that they are doomed to die early and who believe society values their lives less than those of others, it becomes even more likely that a decent into depression will allow the illogic of the inevitability of suicide to take hold. When these young men live in an environment in which guns – the most effective means of suicide are readily available, it should be no surprise that a suicide crisis develops."

Indeed, the Black community has ignored the obvious suicide warning signs of young adult Black males: preoccupation with death, no hope for the future, and self-destructive behaviors. We are ignoring these warning signs because we are in denial and for the most part the subject of suicide is taboo in our communities.

Suicide particularly is a hidden crisis in our communities because the general subject of mental health is unsettling to us. We have the misperception that mental illness means you are 'crazy', a moral failure, or personally weak. Young adult Black males of the 'super macho' hip-hop generation have been socialized that expressing feelings and emotions is unmanly, weak, and soft.

Thus many young adult Black males with despondent feelings, emotional pain, trauma, and psychological distress don't seek mental health care. When their mental heath issues are not addressed and treated, young adult Black males are more vulnerable to substance abuse, incarceration, homicide, and suicide.

From my perspective the tremendous rise of suicide among young adult Black males stems from an attitude of worthlessness and correlated logic. They believe what difference does it make if I live or die, who cares? Nobody wants to hear about my feelings of hurt and pain. I'm all alone! I'll end my own life and everybody will be satisfied. I'll be just another dead Black man.

To provide prevention and intervention assistance to suicide at-risk young adult Black males, the Black community must stop believing in the myths and stigma that anyone who tries to or has killed himself must be crazy. Most suicidal young adult Black males are not psychotic or insane, they may be grief-stricken, depressed, frustrated, and alienated, but extreme distress and emotional pain are not necessarily signs of mental illness.

I wrote this article to raise mental health awareness of the rising suicide rates among young adult Black males.

Creating Gang Hysteria

If readers accept the Oakland Press article on 9-10-08, ‘FBI Targeting Pontiac Gangs’, then they probably believe Pontiac is being overrun by gang activity. What was interesting about this article it had no objective gang data to back its claim.

This article was more about gang funding for law enforcement instead of a real gang problem; as Stanley ‘Tookie Williams state executed co-founder of the CRIPS gang stated: “When gang warfare is fed and fueled by law enforcement, funds are generated for the so-called anti-gang units. Without gangs, these units would no longer exist.”

There has been an upsurge in homicides in Pontiac, 18 homicides thus far in 2008, two more than the total of 16 in 2007. Of the homicides this year, how many of these murders have been specifically gang related? From my recollection only one of these murders was so-called gang related, allegedly committed by members of the ‘Goon Squad’.

Obviously these homicides in Pontiac are not gang related, but they are specifically related to Black-on-Black male violence. Over ninety percent of the homicide victims this year have been Black men. To make a claim beyond opinions and self-serving agendas that there is a gang problem, the assertion must be supported by gang defining criteria and evidence of substantial gang activity.

In analyzing a gang problem one must know about gangs in general and the history of local gangs in particular, without this knowledge one’s understanding is imaginable, superficial, and prejudice. Often young Black males are stereotyped as gang members simply because of the clothes they wear.

From my perspective, Black neighborhoods in Pontiac have never had what you can define as a real gang problem in the past, nor do they presently have one. Historically in Pontiac’s Black neighborhoods you’ve had neighborhood antagonistic rivalries based on territorial associations such as Southside, Eastside, Lakeside, Westside, Northside, etc.

These territorial rivalries based on where one lived, self-hatred, and misplaced aggression often erupted in violent confrontations in neighborhoods, at school, sporting events, parties, and skating rinks. Over the years these rivalries have resulted in homicides. Pontiac’s Black neighborhoods have never had large-scale and organized gangs like the Bloods and Crips (Los Angeles based) or the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples (Chicago based).

Fratricidal territorial rivalries between young Black males still continue today in Pontiac’s Black neighborhoods. There are also a growing number of smaller click rivalries. Young Black male teens here are also forming ‘bandit scavenger clicks’ that impulsively rob and beat people.

What I see in Pontiac’s Black neighborhoods is not a growing gang problem but an increasing click forming phenomena. Marginalized young Black male teens are coming together in small groups (clicks) motivated by unmet needs. Many of them are unloved, unprotected, neglected, slighted, poor, angry, depressed, fatherless, and fatalistic.

Gang research shows that youth gangs today are smaller, less structured, and homegrown. No, Pontiac does not have a gang problem but it does have a homegrown risk factors problem. Risk factors are the psycho-socioeconomic indicators that make youth vulnerable to gang involvement.

The City of Pontiac is full of risk factors like high unemployment and poverty, few job opportunities, and few recreational outlets. You would think that if the leadership in Pontiac was going to contact the federal government it would be for monetary assistance to address its risk factors instead of contacting the FBI.

A progressive gang prevention and intervention approach is a full communitywide collaboration that addresses identified risk factors: individual characteristics, family conditions, school performance, peer group influences, and community context. A progressive risk-based approach begins with accurate assessment of what is meant by a gang and gang-related offenses.

Next a community resources inventory is done to identify services in the community that are being provided or could be provided to at-risk youth, gang members, and their families.

Once progressive Pontiac residents decide to organize – ‘gang up’ to reduce oppressive risk factors they will see a decrease in real and imagined youth gangs.