Dr. Sophia Ononye-Onyia on Michael K. Williams and the Mental Health Disaster in Black Communities

Michael K Williams arrives for the premiere of “The Public” at the New York Public Library in New York, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs/File Photo

In my first Entrepreneur article, I reflected on lessons learned from a workplace healthcare perspective following the abrupt death of the great Black actor Chadwick Boseman. Sadly, one year later, yet another great Black actor, Michael K. Williams, shockingly passed away at the age of 54. His death showcases the perils of mental health issues and the continued need for destigmatization, particularly in Black communities.

History repeating itself

HBO’s The Wire is constantly on the top 10 lists of best all-time television series and is a personal favorite of mine for several reasons. First, the quality of actors such as the late Williams, who played Omar, portrayed a remarkably realistic portrait of inner city communities.

Secondly, the series showcased a delicate balance between grittiness and humanity. In other words, it showed the mental anguish that people, primarily African Americans, face in inner city communities and the seemingly futile attempt to better oneself against all odds. Third, the series showcased what is endemic in virtually all societies: The misguided belief that men are at their best when they display little-to-no vulnerability and are even keeled with no outbursts of anxiety, depression or any extreme emotion — i.e. “the strong, silent type.”

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The challenge with repressing emotions is that the repressed anger or frustration can be activated in seemingly mundane situations. In addition, the ability to properly manage emotions is integral to our success as human beings. Unfortunately, many Black people do not have the resources or network that can support them without judgment or persecution. Furthermore, many people have been incarcerated, lost their jobs, families and lives or even succumbed to substance abuse because of crippling mental health issues.

Mental health: A global taboo topic

Growing up in West Africa, mental health was considered a taboo subject and a sign of weakness, especially for men. But even here in the U.S., mental health is not as prioritized as physical health in the workplace and our communities. Minorities, especially African Americans, are less likely than white people to seek treatment for conditions such as anxiety and are also more likely to prematurely end treatment, per data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Furthermore, cultural sensitivity is very important in mental health, especially for Black men, because it’s crucial for patients to feel that their provider understands their identity and can give them the best possible support and care. Consequently, there is a need for significant investment in resources for mental health care in medically underserved areas.

Fortunately, the pandemic has slowed down travel and socialization and forced all of us to embrace the screens of our computers and mobile devices as the ultimate connectivity tool. So even though face-to-face communication remains the gold standard, more and more people are embracing digital tools for daily engagement and education. In fact, telehealth use is almost 40 times higher today than pre-pandemic, with the most significant usage in psychiatry and substance abuse treatment, based on a recent McKinsey & Company report.

Despite what we know about the pervasive nature of mental health issues, it is still fairly rare to find workplaces where mental health days are understood and not punitive. Unfortunately, the underlying assumption is that employees will take advantage of these mental health days, resulting in a culture of laziness and reduced productivity.

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SOURCE: Entrepreneur, Dr. Sophia Ononye-Onyia

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