When I was about 9 years old, I lost my maternal grandfather.
Eddie Powell was a Korean War veteran and single dad during a time when black single fathers were real unicorns. He was the strong, stoic type of straight man typical of his generation. Men who have been socialized to adopt rigid norms of masculinity that require them to keep their emotional pain close to their chest and through adversity.
Family stories have taught me that my grandfather’s emotional pain was rooted in an experience of racial violence that forced him to leave Alabama in the middle of the night to escape a potential lynching. Like dozens of other Blacks from the Deep South, he was forced to seek the warmth of other suns and sever ties with his home for good.
My grandfather continued to serve his country and his family with dignity, grace and kindness. But, as I reflect on the stories my mom shares about him, it’s obvious that he struggled to spread that same loving kindness.
His sense of duty to take care of our family outweighed any inclinations he might have had to take care of himself. He never spoke of his time in a separate Marine Corps, the events that caused him to flee Alabama, or the anger, grief and loss he surely felt. Instead, my grandfather shifted his pain, mostly for a purpose. But, sometimes, he shifted his pain in a way that compromised his longevity.
Ultimately, he died in his early fifties from cirrhosis of the liver, an advanced liver disease that can be caused by alcohol abuse. It was a preventable death of desperation that left women, girls and families in shock behind.
Emotional pain will eventually emerge
As a trauma psychologist and male health expert, I have witnessed the myriad of ways men try to push emotional pain out of their consciousness. While this strategy can provide momentary relief, its systematic deployment can exacerbate emotional distress.
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Changing Pain is like playing an extended game of Whack-a-mole. Men can suppress emotions. But, they often appear in other places and can manifest as unhealthy behaviors such as increased risk-taking, substance misuse / abuse, interpersonal violence, and other health issues.
Grandpa’s self-care lessons and my professional experience are clear to me:
► Men’s personal care is neither feminizing nor optional.
► When men engage in self-care practices, the effects can be transformative for him, his partner, his family and everyone around him.
► For black men, personal care can be essential in releasing the stress associated with racial injustice and ensuring that they can be fully present in the care of their families.
Urgent need to take care of yourself
The fierce urgency for men’s personal care couldn’t be more evident than it is right now. After more than a year of prolonged physical and social isolation, heightened racial unrest, men and those they care for and relate to are in need of a self-care reset. In fact, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in mental health issues among American adults. Men are especially vulnerable given their higher suicide rates than women, the lack of friendship in men’s lives (15% of American men say they don’t have close friends), and the tendency to forgo traditional mental health services in relation to women.
Black, Indigenous and colored people face unique stigmas and barriers to services for pain management, poor mental health and substance use. Black men like my grandfather, while resilient, face emotional wounds that pile up. Too many men think they should push back on self-care.
The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with disease and disability with or without it. support from a health care provider ”. But it also includes taking the time to engage in meaningful individual or group activities, building periods of radical rest, simply finding joy and mindfulness-based practices.
Men should know that well-being matters
The good news is that proponents of personal care and mental health are pushing back all norms and standards of masculinity when they no longer help men in their desire to be present fathers, husbands, partners and friends. Men must take care of all their well-being in order to be present with their families. Self-care practices like meditation and mindfulness are being normalized for men. Realizing this, even brands and employers are teaming up and expanding access to self-care resources.
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For example, Dove Men + Care and Headspace, where I’m Director of Creative Diversity, have teamed up to offer meditation collections that include themes such as radical self-care, parental compassion, and quitting work. Numerous studies have found the mental health benefits of meditation, including increased compassion, decreased aggression, and reduced stress. I’m proud to work with Headspace’s meditation programs, especially as clinicians see digital tools opening up opportunities for men to get help with their mental health.
What I wish for the men I have had the opportunity to serve in my clinical practice is the same as what I wanted for my grandfather. My wish is that men, especially blacks, natives and men of color, would allow themselves permission to practice radical self-care. It might also inspire the next generation of men and boys to resist social urges to change pain; but rather to face it, to metabolize it and to attenuate it by privileging personal care.
Wizdom Powell is Director of the Health Disparities Institute and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UConn Health. Powell is also Director of Creative Diversity at Headspace.