How can we better engage black men as patients?


I’m a black man, husband, father, son, brother, and a board-certified psychiatrist, child and adolescent psychiatry fellow, and addiction medicine fellow. I write this article as the latter, a colleague, from the former’s perspective, which you would not need to verify via Google, social media, or a badge upon meeting me.

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July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, established to bring awareness to the unique struggles that marginalized groups face concerning mental illness in the United States.

Given the events of the last few months, including a global pandemic and videotaped killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, two unarmed black men, America’s structural racism and inequality are being challenged in historic ways. Black people are suffering. In fact, I was not surprised to learn1 that some black families with sons have expanded the “talk” – which traditionally has focused on dealing with police officers – to include vigilantes.

Because of my extensive work with and treatment of men of color, I would like to answer a key question: “How do psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians better engage men of color? Before the “how,” let’s review the state of black men’s mental health.

According to Healthy People 2020, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States.2 Among those with diagnosable mental disorders, black people are more likely than are their white counterparts to experience severe symptoms and protracted diseases. Roughly 7% of black men meet the criteria for a lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorder.3 Applying that figure to recent national population estimates means that there are 1.4 million black men currently suffering from major depression. Suicide has been on a continued uptrend among black male youth for more than 2 decades. Moreover, given the high rates of stigma and unmet need in this population, it is likely that these figures are even more dire.

Compared with other groups, black men in the United States face a disproportionate burden of preventable morbidity and mortality rates. Of all the health concerns faced by black men, mental health challenges may be among the most stigmatized.4 Evidence suggests that black men have more adverse life experiences than do men of other racial/ethnic groups, and consequently, experience poorer mental health.5 Black men experience high rates of poverty, unemployment, and underemployment, and are incarcerated at much higher rates than those of men of other racial/ethnic groups.6 It is notable that black male youth are often perceived as older by law enforcement, beginning as early as 10 years old, often resulting in negative interactions.7

Despite those challenges, black men are often expected to project strength, they are expected to minimize displays of emotion when off the field or court (i.e., “Just shut up and dribble”), and they are expected to be true versions of folk hero John Henry. This caricature of black males is used at times to validate shootings of unarmed black males (adults and youth).

Black men’s mental health should be a priority for those in the mental health field. This is particularly the case light of our field’s historical involvement in and promotion of stereotyped clinical descriptions of black men and contributing to health disparities that persist. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia as are white men. To read about holdovers from the days of targeted advertising against black protesters of the 1960s and 1970s, check out “The Protest Psychosis” (Beacon Press, 2010) by psychiatrist and anthropologist Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD. If you go further back in psychiatric history, the late 1800s, you can learn about the devious diagnosis of drapetomania attributed to enslaved people who were seeking freedom.

Those on the front lines providing mental health services should understand black men’s mental health from an ecological perspective. Beyond the emotional burden that mental illness imposes on the individual, there are more considerable interpersonal and societal implications for the state of black men’s mental health. As such, in our full capacity like other men, black men play an essential role within families, churches, neighborhoods, and organizations.

Dr. Kevin M. Simon, Boston Children's Hospital

Dr. Kevin M. Simon

Given our brief review, we can reconsider our question, “How do psychiatrists and mental health clinicians better engage men of color?”

I will suggest a few fundamental principles that honestly can be applied to any patient but should be strongly considered with your black male patients – given they are likely not accustomed to engaging with the health care system, let alone with a mental health clinician:

1. Create a comfortable environment. Because of stigma, persistent myths, and lack of normalcy with talking to a mental health professional, many patients, including black men, do not have a framework for a psychiatric/psychological evaluation or treatment. It would be essential to set the frame of your encounter. Evidence suggests this can improve engagement and follow-up care among black men.8 In addition, keep in mind that “fictive kin”9 tend to play a major role in the transmission of culture, health promotion, and decision-making in the black community. This helps explain why barbershop initiatives10 are effective. If clinicians are able to allow black male patients to feel comfortable, the clinician, too, might become part of that fictive community and enhance the patient-provider relationship.

2. Allow for storytelling. In the age of the checklist, it can be relatively easy to lose sight that our patients, including black men, have their own narratives. Evidence suggests that physicians interrupt patients early and often. Challenge yourself to allow the patient to tell his story. In consideration of an initial evaluation, it may help to begin by first gathering sociodemographic information (i.e. housing, education, employment, family, etc.); doing so will allow the patient time to get comfortable before you assess possible psychiatric symptoms.

3. Confidentiality assurance. Many black men have a distrust for the health care profession; as such, it is vital that clinicians emphasize that their patients’ information and history will be used only to help the patient. It will be important to inform black male patients of their rights, because often in the greater society, their rights seem to be negated.

4. Be aware of nonverbal language. Given black men’s stereotyped roles in society and recognition that they are regularly perceived as threats, many black men have become adept at reading nonverbal cues (i.e., purse clutched, side comment, etc.). In doing so, clinicians must be attuned to their own nonverbal language. For example, a glance at one’s watch might be interpreted as you’re not listening. It would be better to be upfront and candid by saying something like, “I need to check the time,” rather than attempting to be stealth. Being transparent in that way will let the patient know that you will be upfront with him.

5. Be respectful. During an encounter, and in particular when discussing treatment plans, clinicians must allow the patient space to process and be involved in his care. Allowing the patient time to think through how he would want to proceed provides him a sense of personal agency and lets him know that he is capable of improving his mental wellness.

Black male patients need to feel comfortable, safe, able to trust the clinician. They must feel listened to, understood, and respected. This information might help some clinicians better understand what needs to happen between a black male patient and a nonblack clinician so the patient can feel good about his mental health engagement. To some, these recommendations might seem obvious or too simple, yet if we consider the countless reports of poor patient treatment engagement, adherence, and retention, we cannot deny the need for change. Having black male patients disclose important information during encounters could prevent poor clinical interactions that leave them feeling uncomfortable, uncertain, skeptical, disrespected, and further cynical about mental health care.

Dr. Simon practices at Boston Children’s Hospital. He has no disclosures.


1. Bunn C. After Arbery shooting, black parents are rethinking “the talk” to explain white vigilantes. NBC News. 2020 May 19.

2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Disease Prevention and Promotion. Healthy People 2020.

3. Ward E and Mangesha M. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2013 Apr-Jul;83(2 0 3):386-97.

4. Holden KB et al. J Mens health. 2012 Jun 1;9(2):63-9.

5. Brown TH et al. Fam Community Health. 2015 Oct-Dec;38(4):307-18.

6. Jäggi et al. Soc Ment Health. 2016 Nov;6(3):187-296.

7. Goff PA et al. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014;106(4):526-45.

8. Alsan M et al. National Bureau of Economic Research. NBER Working Paper No. 24787. 2018 Jun. Revised 2019 Aug.

9. Spruill IJ. J Nat Black Nurses Assoc. 2014 Dec;25(2):23-30.

10. Graham LF et al. Am J Mens Health. 2018 Sep;12(5):1307-16.

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