While working in the prison system in Florida as a therapist over 50% of my caseload were black men. We could spend days discussing the issues contributing to that number, but in the prison I was most concerned with why the person who was sitting in front of me needed my services. Historically, black men were not “allowed” to experience mental health issues. There have been books written about the social stigma of mental illness in the black community; even simple depression is something black men were encouraged to hide. So, I was surprised by what my clients were presenting to me.
The Research on Social Work Practice published a study connecting demographic factors to mental health in black men. The study covers a variety of issues, using data from the “National Survey of American Life: Coping with Stress in the 21st Century”. Some interesting findings came from the evaluation, although not necessarily surprising.
Older black men had lower levels of psychological distress than younger black men, with significantly lower levels of depression reported. Married black men had lower odds of depression, as did Southerners. Significant symptoms of depression were correlated to lower socioeconomic positions such as those with lower level of education, those who were unemployed, and those who lived in poverty.
So this brings me back to those who were sitting in front of me at the prison: most were young, lacked education, and had difficulties keeping a job. This certainly helps me bring into perspective what I was seeing. Young black men convicted of crimes that ranged from drug possession to murder, yet they were open to discussing their emotions, their pasts, and their problems with me. More surprising was their willingness to listen and learn and try new ways of dealing with things. My entire outlook on these young men changed during my time working with them.
So why is this important? Most in our society don’t care about what goes on behind prison walls. I did not either until I worked behind one. What I know now is that the majority of those who go to prison get out. A significant number of those who get out go back in. Stopping the revolving door is the key to less crime, less victims, and less money spent on locking people up.
There is no single or easy answer to fixing the problems that lead people to prison. It is, however, worth highlighting that on average African Americans remain worse off than the general population on almost every important social indicator, even though the 20th century saw vast improvements overall. These indicators are inevitably related to poverty, which is related to both untreated mental health issues and crime in all Americans. The fact that young black men are at a disproportionate risk for all three is an issue all people should be concerned about. If, as the study says, “life circumstances are meaningful for the mental health of black men”, wouldn’t that be a great place to start when looking to halt the revolving prison doors?