June 12 – Volume 13, #6
“Check Your Head”
-Dedicated to MCA of the Beastie Boys. Rest in peace and thanks for your contribution to the culture-
For many Americans sport is used as a diversion from the harsh realities of everyday life. But everyday life and sport saw a painful intersection with the sad death of Junior Seau this past May after a suicide.
Seau is one of the toughest, most hardcore motherfuckers to ever play the game. And his teammates and coaches who shared locker rooms with him over the years said that Seau was notorious for hiding all types of physical pain from teammates and the general public. While such a strategy certainly exposes one to extra health risks, it is an understandable rationale in a career where there is a short shelf life and when you’re a team leader like Seau was.
The vast majority of us will not play in the NFL, however, and won’t have to deal with the kind of choices that Seau had to endure for 20 years of Sundays. What all of us can relate to, however, is Seau’s propensity to mask his mental, emotional and spiritual pain in an effort to psychologically walk it off. But walking it off is becoming tougher to do these days. And walking it off is nearly impossible to do alone. There is no shame at all in getting a crutch every now and again until you’re able to stand firmly on your own two feet.
The NFL is perhaps the most macho collection of men in all of America. It has long produced a culture based on toughness and the ability to take a hit. This culture has been built up over nearly a century and is going to be very slow to change. This is why NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has found it so difficult to curb violent hits in professional football. While I think that Goodell has been overzealous and undemocratic in his discipline at times, it is his only practical recourse because the NFL’s macho men have shown time and time again that they are not only willing to endure pain to enjoy their craft, but almost take pride in doing so.
But there is absolutely nothing to be proud about in enduring an inordinate amount of mental pain. This type of cultural norm may have well claimed Junior Seau’s life well before his time. And if we as men don’t end this soft ass thinking that makes us believe that feeling vulnerable or uncertain is weak, many more of our brothers will lose their lives going forward.
Compared to many modern nations, America has been slow to the game in prioritizing mental health. Some of this is just related to the fact that Americans are often slow to address health epidemics in general whether they be obesity, drug addiction or HIV. But some of this is also rooted in the rugged individualism that is promoted in America which suggests that each man make his own way in this world and solves his own problems. This mentality is best reflected in the mean-spirited hostility towards the over four million Americans who receive welfare benefits. On multiple levels, seeking outside help goes against the American creed. Sadly, this even involves getting outside help to get our minds right, although this has gotten much better with over a quarter of the U.S. population receiving some form of mental health therapy today.
Still, among American men in particular, there is a stigma to mental health. This is particularly true in the black community, and there are few who endure more psychological trauma than black men in this sick society. Blacks are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental stress than whites. The suicide rate for black men is six times higher than it is for black women. Nearly 20 percent of African Americans of all genders suffer from a treatable mental health disorder such as bi-polar disorder, alcoholism or generalized anxiety. 70 percent of black men will experience depression at some point in their lives, nearly the majority of which will go untreated. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of black men between the ages of 15 and 24. And in spite of these alarming numbers (which are probably underreported) too many of us continue to try and walk it off. And most of us aren’t doing a very good job, quite frankly if the conditions of our communities and our families are any indication.
While Seau’s death is tragic, his experience can help to move us forward as a nation on de-stigmatizing mental health treatment. Often times the view in America when someone commits suicide is that they were soft, or they went out like a punk somehow. Well anyone who saw how Seau lived his professional life knows for sure that this man was no punk. Quite the contrary. For someone as tough and rugged as Junior Seau to feel that he would get more relief from ending it all than continuing to live suggests that he was enduring some pretty heavy pain.
And while most of us may not be brought to take the steps that Seau ultimately did, no one among us can honestly argue that at some point we haven’t battled with some level of internal pain that we thought was too difficult to allow us to go on. I know I have. And if you haven’t, you’re either lying, in denial or probably both.
Fortunately for me I’ve long been surrounded by a wonderful support group that has helped me in more ways than they could possibly imagine. And when that wasn’t enough, I spoke with mental health professionals to help bridge gaps that my support system could not. This was not an easy decision. I’m a man’s man if ever there was one. And I am a stubbornly independent man who takes great pride in making his own way, and in finding his own solutions. But getting help was a decision that I am very glad that I made at the time. This decision to speak with a therapist was reaffirmed when I later learned that several of my male friends had not only done so themselves, but absolutely swore by this process. As men we need to do a better job of telling each other that seeking out help to manage our mental health is ok. I felt very fortunate to have that support during that time in my life.
Your average black man may sooner lose a foot than go to the doctor, so it takes a lot to get black men to seek medical assistance, but we have to be more proactive in monitoring our mental health than we have been historically. Today there are more things than ever that have the potential to bring us down. It is ok to get help in getting back up. There is too much adversity in this cold world to face it alone. The good news is that you don’t have to. And there are many options that range in between enduring our personal demons all alone, and the final choice that Junior Seau made. You can man-up and get some help before it’s too late.
Peace and God bless,