"I was never depressed. […] I just want to tell everybody I'm fine. I'm good. It's a blessing to play the game that I love."
In case you didn't know already, black boys don't cry.
Tears just don't go with the brand. African-American males are encouraged to be fearless, cocky and impervious to external forces. You can't do that while your eyes are watery and your voice is breaking.
Black men celebrate swagger and aggressiveness and tend to scorn weakness, either real or perceived. It is often more manly to admit to an act of violence than to an act of kindness. Unfortunately, all this chest thumping can lead a man to ruin.
Consider Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young.
After his game on Sept. 7, during which Young played poorly, was booed by fans and sprained his left knee, the superstar came unraveled. He told a psychiatrist the next day that he no longer wanted to play football and that he was having suicidal thoughts. That night, he left his cell phone and a house full of people behind and disappeared in his car with a gun. Police searched for Young for more than four hours before finding him at a friend's house, unharmed, watching a football game and eating hot wings.
Clearly, Young was suffering an emotional crisis. He needs the ongoing help of a mental health care professional. Yet, if Young stays true to the statistics, he isn't likely to receive help. "The percentage of African Americans receiving needed [mental health] care is only half that of non-Hispanic whites," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. The study goes on to say that nearly 25 percent of African Americans are uninsured—a large barrier to seeking health care—compared to 16 percent of the general U.S. population.
On Sept. 11, the 25-year-old all-pro held a press conference. He had a difficult but important decision to make: admit that he was grappling with deep depression, which strikes nearly 17 million American adults each year, or strike a pose and insist that nothing is bothering him. The bravado won out. According to Young, he was never depressed.
Black boys don't cry.
Historically, "we associated mental illness with insanity and horrible shame," said John F. Murray, a clinical and sport performance psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla. Unfortunately, far too many black men remain stuck in the dark ages, still attaching a cultural stigma to depression.
Young is the latest high-profile black athlete to have his personal battle with depression made public. In 2006, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens received national headlines when his publicist told a 911 operator that Owens had intentionally overdosed on pain pills. Soon after the episode, like Young, Owens was all smiles as he addressed the media, characterizing the incident as a hiccup instead of as something dark in his personality that needed fixing.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said on Sept. 15 that the team will stick with Kerry Collins, Young's former backup, as its starting quarterback as long as the team keeps winning, even after Young becomes healthy enough to return to the field. Once again, Young is faced with an important decision: see the switch as a slap in the face and sink further into disappointment or view it as an opportunity to get help solving his mental-health challenges.
While there is much to appreciate about black masculinity, there are some insidious aspects to playing the part. For instance, many believe that we have to struggle alone with our demons and that asking for help makes us appear weak. That kind of individualism is a façade, and we do ourselves no good when we hold back the tears.
Carl Little is a sports reporter at The Washington Post.