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Rhythm of the Heart
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Dr. Waldo Johnson of the University of Chicago discussed the real world that young African American males live in and how it can create depressive symptomatology. Author Brian Prioleau spoke with Dr. Johnson at length about constructive solutions in the wake of violent racial prejudice impacting African American communities.
Rhythm of the Heart

In the wake of violence against young black men across America, a symposium held at the University of Chicago entitled “Black Young Men in America: Rising above Social and Racial Prejudice, Trauma, and Educational Disparities” drew record attendance this past winter. Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., made comments about the high rates of depression in black males during the opening panel discussion at the symposium, which was held at The University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. We talked to Dr. Johnson, Associate Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago and Faculty Affiliate, Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, about the nature of this problem and what can be done to improve outcomes for young black men.

“Employment is tied to normative traditional expectations to role performance in American families: the man embodies the provider role. And there is a heavy commitment to work among black males in families, but there are also lower rates of success in securing and sustaining employment. Among low-income families, the male role commitment to gaining employment may begin as early as late boyhood. By early to middle adolescence, especially in low-income Black families, males may recognize or perceive it important that they contribute to household income as well as support themselves. The inability to gain employment opportunities in the legal labor market may become a primary contributor to depressive symptoms among black male youth,” Dr. Johnson said. That lack of success can continue into adulthood. "Unless Black males do well and complete their school, depression may disrupt the likelihood of forming sustainable family relationships.” A snapshot of the record number of attendees at the Chicago symposium this past February illustrates the growing societal concerns facing African American communities who are becoming targets of violence. Nationwide, discussions are starting to unfold, but frustration is building since there are too few safe spaces for young black males to discuss emotional trauma.

“In today’s service economy, entrance into and success in sustaining entrance requires more education than in earlier periods of the American labor market. And individuals looking for work need to be more flexible about the reservations wage they will accept, especially if they lack the increasing education and training to gain entrance into the service economy and sustain employment. Over time, their wage expectations may improve.”

There are threats,and perception of threats, to personal safety in impoverished, urban neighborhoods that are shared by all residents. Young black men often viewed as the instigators of urban violence but they are also the victims. Approaches and strategies to escape what may be recognized as dangerous areas within a neighborhood may include going to other,safer neighborhoods. But as alleged perpetrators of violence, young black male are viewed with suspicion not only within their own neighborhoods but others to which they might escape and in response to their presence, they may also encounter violent reactions. “This contributes to the life of depressive symptomatology that often characterizes the lives of black males, from early adolescence through adulthood — ‘I can’t get a job, I can’t avoid violence, I can’t deal with family pressures’” said Dr. Johnson. “The neighborhoods in which they live are also characterized as having a lack of mental health professionals to engage black males as well as other community residents on the issues that contribute to the high rates of depression.” An important response to the provider role is for young black males to understand that their proficiency in the provider role increases when they obtain the education and training needed and that increasingly the provider role is not restricted to the adult or male youth in families. “It is not just a role that men have to play; it is something they share with their wives and partners.” Dr. Johnson surmised. Similarly, men in their role also provide important nurturing roles like the mothers but performed differently and sometimes with varying outcomes.

“Engaging young Black males in developing negotiation and conflict resolution skills is critical to developing a holistic intervention to promoting personal safety,especially in dangerous areas in impoverished, urban neighborhoods where the personal safety of all residents,but especially young Black males may be at the greatest risk.” They may experience threats to their personal safety but they need to be able, when appropriate, to minimize the risks in such situations. Fathers, father figures,mentors and other adults may be critical in helping young Black males to recognize when negotiation and conflict resolution skills should be employed during personal interactions that threaten their safety as well as the safety of others. As young Black males grow older, they recognize these skills as part of their broader developmental skills in which they learn how to size up the situation, know how to de-escalate rising conflict, know when to back down and call for assistance without invoking personal threats to masculine identity. As youth, black males may not want to back down when personally threatened but as adults, young males come to recognize that every threat or perceived threat does not merit a tough, violent response.

Dr. Johnson feels strongly that increased attention to health in general, and mental health in particular, is important in order to create a world where young black male depression will decline. “Males, both adolescent and adult, tend not to be as attentive to their personal health as females are. While both boys and girls begin their lives with equal access to the healthcare system, seeing the pediatrician, boys are more likely to drop out of the health care system during adolescence unless they are playing high school sports. This sex differential is likely to continue into adulthood across race, ethnicity and socio-economic status but it may be more pronounced among those males of lower socio-economic status, whose unemployment and underemployment does not provide insurance coverage, the employment benefit mechanism by which men have traditionally accessed healthcare. These males are less likely to know their health history,may be more likely to self-medicate and subsequently use the healthcare system when all else fails. Males are likely to constitute the largest expansion of healthcare patients under the Affordable Care Act. The opportunity to expand healthcare provision to this group of patients remains a daunting challenge but within the reach of success.”

Dr. Johnson concluded, “ Helping males to address their physical and behavioral health care needs will improve their overall wellbeing. Beginning with young males,especially young Black males, who fare worse of virtually every dimension of wellbeing when compared to their peers, is an appropriate first step. It is also a necessary first step in order to enhance the wellbeing of American society. The Affordable Care Act can help bridge the divide.”

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