With the recent passing of Chadwick Boseman, the question of health and wellness has become more prevalent than ever. Starring in “42,” “Get on Up,” and the box office hit “The Black Panther,” the 43-year-old star passed away from colon cancer.
The stigma on healthcare professionals within the Black community runs deep. With issues of mistrust, lack of health care coverage and lack of access, many African Americans seek medical and mental health treatment at significantly lower rates than other races. Black men, especially, are seeking healthcare far less than Black women.
While most chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes can be managed, early screenings and lifestyle changes are key in helping to control the condition.
Shanette Kennedy, a registered nurse in the Detroit medical system, believes Black men choose to forgo seeing the doctor out of fear.
“From a medical perspective, I believe that a lot of Black men don’t see doctors simply because they don’t want any bad news,” she explains.
While potential outcomes could discourage Black men from seeking medical attention, there still exists the lack of trust due to the low numbers of Black healthcare professionals. According to a 2019 survey from the Association of American Medical Colleges, African Americans make up roughly five percent of active physicians in the country.
“I think a lack of representation in the medical field deters a lot of Black men, especially older Black men, from seeking regular medical exams,” Kennedy said. “When men finally go to the doctor, they may leave with prescriptions for common chronic issues and haven’t formed a level of trust to be compliant with the medications.”
In addition to fear, there is a huge disparity in healthcare coverage. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, African Americans were able to close the gap for those uninsured. When the Affordable Care Act was first implemented in March 2010, over 19 percent of African Americans were uninsured. In 2016, the year former President Barack Obama left office, the gap significantly closed to just over 10 percent. Now, on the uptick, more Black Americans are becoming uninsured.
As women are offered state insurance due to pregnancy or income, in contrast, without employer-provided insurance, the state or private insurance, Black men are largely uncovered.
“We can’t ignore the fact that a lack of health insurance plays a major role in seeking medical care. Low income women are offered medical insurance and screened for insurance when applying for state assistance, many men don’t get that luxury,” Kennedy expresses.
Physical health and wellness are not the only areas of healthcare Black men stray from. Mental health also affects them in alarming rates. Christopher Harris, a licensed professional counselor and owner of CCHarris Professional Counseling Services, attributes the fear of seeking mental health assistance to cultural and systemic issues.
“The functional problem is cultural. We’ve been raised by a narrative of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” Harris explains. “The second problem is systemically. It hasn’t been part of our narrative. We have a portion of the community that distrust professionals.”
Mental health is a taboo subject within the Black community. Unlike seeing a doctor to manage physical health, mental health professionals are not seen as important to overall health and wellness.
“Your physical, mental and emotional health are all connected. If you’re struggling in one, it’s hard, but what if you’re struggling in all three?” Harris asks.
Aside from seeking medical help to aid in checkups, preventative measures and health management, Black men are less likely to enlist the help of mental health professionals to discuss their traumas. Maintaining a healthy mind and body are key in experiencing overall health.
“Lack of sleep, nutrients and lack of fitness can shut your system down,” Harris says.
The notion of Black masculinity, or Black manhood, is a topic that has been explored through books, research and various studies. With ideas of ego and pride often being at the center of internal conflict, seeking professional help is often frowned upon amongst Black men.
Jakita Reed, a marriage and family therapist intern, details how masculinity among Black men prevents them from seeing mental health and medical health professionals.
“Black masculinity is certainly a factor in Black men not seeking professional help. I’ve heard many men and women tell young boys to stop crying like a little girl. If that’s not silencing the ability of emotional attunement in self of men then, I don’t know what is,” Reed says
As a result of not seeking medical or mental health expert, chances of Black men turning to unsafe practices and coping mechanisms to self-heal could drastically increase.
“Not seeing a doctor when symptoms are mild likely means that the symptoms will only increase or get worse over time. The potential of those mild symptoms turning into a crisis is very likely. Suicide, homicide, major depression, alcohol and substance abuse as well as terminal illnesses could all be potential dangers to men who do not seek treatment for any mental or physical health needs immediately.,” Reed says.
As Hollywood and the African American community lost a real-life superhero in the passing of Boseman, his silence around his illness continues to speak volumes. The idea of staying silent in times of health crisis in the Black community is often very common.
“Maybe he was being humble or maybe he didn’t want the news of his terrible illness to overtake his legacy as a strong Black man. Black men save face for their families every day. I believe many Black men suffer in silence for many reasons,” Reed shares.
As masculinity, access and representation continue to be driving factors in seeking medical and mental healthcare, reminding Black men preventative care is key can help in urging them to seek professional help.
“Visiting a physician can sometimes seem very invasive, even for the simplest appointments,” Kennedy says. “Black men deserve a shot at life, and a healthy life. Prevention is everything.”