Opinion: It’s time in CT to address mental health needs of Black boys and men

Growing up as young Black boys in the 80s, it was something you really just didn’t talk about. If you were sad or angry, you were told to just get over it. If something was bothering you, the response was often to just “tough it out.” Boys who cried too much or wanted to talk about their feelings were called “sissies,” were seen as weak and became targets of derision and bullying. The “it” that we are referring to is emotional and mental health.

So, it is hard to blame the boys and young men of that era when their response to emotional or mental issues was to repress those feelings. Of course, that only made things worse because eventually those repressed feelings would rise to the surface and manifest in ways that were destructive to the individuals, families, relationships, and the communities that those boys and young men navigated.

Fast forward to 2018 and an extensive study found adult Black males were significantly less likely to utilize mental health services than other groups. Studies examining trauma show that approximately a majority of adult Black men have directly experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, more than half of whom may have an unmet need for mental health services. The impact of the COVID pandemic and the national reckoning on race ignited by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, served only to exacerbate this issue.

As recently as 2023, a White House Roundtable on Young Black Men’s Mental Health found nearly 40 percent of Black teens report they struggle with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Locally in Connecticut, DataHaven’s Greater Hartford Community Wellbeing Index found Black adults were 1.6 times more likely to report feeling down or depressed as compared to white adults. At the same time, research finds that African American men with depression are significantly less likely to seek help compared to white men.

Where do we go from here? Culturally informed, accessible mental health care for Black boys and men can help destigmatize treatment, nurture their well-being, and support their contributions to the social and economic vitality of the region.

To advance solutions to these challenges, the Beta Iota Boulé Foundation and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving are collaborating on an effort to support the mental health of Black boys and men in Greater Hartford. The effort includes an investment of $400,000 from the Boulé Foundation placed with the Hartford Foundation, which in turn will match these funds with up to $600,000 in additional funding for a total of $1 million.

To engage with Greater Hartford’s Black community, $200,000 will be made available to the Black Giving Circle at the Hartford Foundation, a group of community members whose mission is to create sustainable change in the Black community. Donations from members are pooled in a dedicated endowed fund at the Hartford Foundation. Alongside the Boulé Foundation and staff at the Hartford Foundation, giving circle members will examine mental health issues facing Black men and boys in Greater Hartford and recommend grants to nonprofits to address them.

This partnership aligns with the Boulé Foundation’s mission to provide resources and support to issues that challenge members of the Black community, specifically young Black men and boys. The effort complements Hartford Foundation grantmaking that supports increased accessibility and use of mental, physical, and behavioral health supports for Black and Latine residents in Greater Hartford.

This new combined effort will build upon existing work being done in the community and identify gaps in support. These funds create an opportunity to explore a variety of potential solutions to address the mental health needs of Black men and boys. This could include not only specific types of service needs, but also who provides the services. Data from the American Psychiatric Association show that only two percent of the estimated 41,000 psychiatrists in the U.S. are Black, and just four percent of psychologists are Black. This initiative could explore developing strategies to increase the pipeline of Black male clinicians/providers in the mental health sector.

Supporting the mental health and well-being of Black boys and men allows them to thrive which in turn, benefits their families and the whole community. This is a generational challenge that requires significant, systemic changes to increase the availability of mental health services for Black men and boys in a manner that will ensure those services are fully utilized. Engaging Black boys and men requires a deep understanding of racism and its impacts – this partnership between the Hartford Foundation and the Boulé will not only deploy needed resources, but it will also bring together stakeholders and community partners to explore strategies for increased awareness, services and systems change.

Christopher R. Cloud is Sire Archon of Beta Iota Boule; Jay Williams is president/CEO Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

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