The Rise of Black Male Mental Health Awareness In Primetime TV

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October 19th 2018

Primetime shows are navigating the impact of toxic masculinity on Black male mental health in responsible and intriguing ways.

In ABC’s new show, A Million Little Things, for example, its Black lead character Rome Howard’s struggles with suicide ideation are front and center to the show. (It deals so heavily with mental health and suicide that it issued a content warning ahead of the show’s opener.) Played deftly by Romany Malco, Rome is handsome, married to a beautiful wife, has a great home life and though he’s not passionate about his job as a commercial director, he’s very successful. Still, Rome deals with what he describes as a cloud that’s always over his life and he struggles in silence with depression and suicide ideation.

In a heartbreaking scene in the series premiere, Rome wrestles with whether to swallow the bunch of prescription pills he’s already put into his mouth in a suicide attempt. The only thing that stops him is a phone call with news that John, one of his best friends--and another person who seemed to have the perfect life--had just died by suicide. It’s a staggering wake-up call to him and the two remaining friends in their hockey-loving guy group.

[caption id="attachment_308165" align="alignnone" width="800"]A MILLION LITTLE THINGS - "Pilot" (ABC/Jack Rowand) RON LIVINGSTON, DAVID GIUNTOLI, JAMES RODAY, ROMANY MALCO JR A MILLION LITTLE THINGS - "Pilot" (ABC/Jack Rowand)
RON LIVINGSTON, DAVID GIUNTOLI, JAMES RODAY, ROMANY MALCO JR[/caption]

“I spent almost 950 hours sitting next to John and I had no idea he was depressed,” Rome’s friend says, indicting their whole friend group for John’s suicide. “Do you know why? Because we don’t talk,” the friend says. “The truth, the very sad truth, is that we don’t really know each other.” Rome sits in silence, keeping his suicide attempt to himself as his friend rants in grief.

But the words struck Rome and hopefully many men watching, showing the ways in which toxic masculinity can rob men of deeper friendships that go beyond shared interests and into the real-life struggles that men are socialized not to discuss for fear of appearing less masculine. Topics like love, fears, and of course, mental health.

Shortly after his friend’s rant, the guys go to the Bruins game and sit shoulder to shoulder like they’ve been doing for the past 10 years, like nothing has happened--until Rome shares that he attempted suicide. But for the phone call letting him know about John’s suicide, Rome tells them, he would be dead too. It’s a weight off of Rome’s shoulders and also a revolutionary moment in TV history. His friends embrace him and cry with him and let him know that they will support him--all as the hypermasculine hockey game continues in the background.

Thankfully, A Million Little Things’ exploration of Rome’s mental health doesn’t end with his confession. He seeks out a clinical psychologist who specializes in depression to help him. Though he’s not ready to share his attempt with his wife--she’s also struggling with their friend’s suicide--it seems evident that the show will continue to address the ways that toxic masculinity prevents men from getting the mental health help they need and the support of those closest to them.   

Like Rome, Sterling K. Brown’s Emmy-winning character Randall on NBC’s hit show This Is Us also normalizes the idea that success won’t cure mental health issues. In season one, Randall is a wealthy, successful weather trader in New York, married to his soulmate, with two adorable daughters. He also struggles with anxiety.

In one powerful scene in season 2, we see Randall attempt to get through a really bad panic attack where he’s lost his eyesight and has difficulty breathing. He calls his brother on the phone for help. Though panic attacks manifest in different ways for different people, many people praised the episode and Brown’s performance for showing how crippling anxiety can be. It was also important to show Randall calling his brother for help and having his brother take anxiety seriously enough to leave a huge opportunity of his own in order to go and sit with Randall through the attack.

sterling k. brown randall panic attack Sterling K. Brown's character Randall being held by his brother during a panic attack on ABC's 'This Is Us'

Because mental health issues affect more than just the person who is experiencing them directly, shows like This Is Us, are leaning into the impact mental health has on families and love. This season on Insecure, not only were we introduced to the new character Nathan, but we saw a nod to the struggle that Black women have in getting their partners to open up about their wellness.

When Nathan “ghosts” Issa for a month, he returns only to say sometimes he has to “get up and go” when faced with problems. He doesn’t want to burden other people with them, he tells her, so he doesn’t share what’s going. We don’t yet know if Nathan has mental health issues or is just rude--there’s plenty of room for Insecure to explore that in the next season--but it’s possible that, as a Hurricane Harvey survivor who’s lost everything and is unemployed in a new state, he’s dealing with a tremendous amount of stress.

We can only speculate about Nathan’s feelings, but we did see how Nathan disappearing without a trace and no communication exacerbated Issa’s insecurities. She made fake social media accounts to stalk him online and even roped her best friend into getting into Nathan’s house under false pretenses to discover his whereabouts. Though Nathan isn’t responsible for Issa’s behavior, he is responsible for his own and the ways in which not managing his mental health--if that’s the issue--impacts the people with whom he’s made commitments.

Another way shows are tackling Black male mental health is through the lens of those who don’t have access to mental healthcare. In The Walking Dead  and Fear of the Walking Dead franchises, the character Morgan has been through it--it’s the Zombie Apocalypse, after all. In season 1, we see him being extremely protective of his young son following the zombification of his wife. He’s had to kill to survive and to protect what’s left of his family and he wrestles with deep anger and regret when, in season 3, his wife has come back and killed their son. The list of mental health issues he must have as a result of this trauma and constant fear must be endless.

After spending multiple years fighting to survive, Morgan attempts to cope with the pain he carries by practicing Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art that allows for both self-defense and protection from harm for the attacker. It’s a practice that embodies his newly adopted philosophy that “all life is precious.” These spiritual, physical and emotional practices become his self-care in a world where he is under constant threat of death with no access to health care. It’s a positive coping mechanism that many Black men in the real world can both relate to and learn from.

We’ve already seen examples of how powerful ideas presented on TV can be for the masses; ABC’s hit show Modern Family has been credited for helping to change societal attitudes and eventually the law around marriage equality. It is imperative that we see more Black men on television dealing with mental health in ways that push the culture forward, not because it is a new TV trend, but because it is a constant reality for so many of us.

Seeing these nuanced and affirming portrayals of Black men navigating their conditions and the consequences surrounding them can in fact inspire us to not only be better to ourselves in real life, but also to each other.

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