In an interview with CNN's Van Jones on Saturday, Jay-Z discussed why mental health stigma is so "ridiculous," and made the case for why therapy should be more accessible for kids growing up in schools.
"Mental health, PTSD, and trauma is so rampant in our community," Jones said during the interview, joking that "as scared as Black folks are of the cops, we're even more scared of therapists."
"Yeah, it's a stigma," Jay-Z responded, adding, "As you grow, you realize the ridiculousness of the stigma attached to it. Like, what? You just talk to someone about your problems."
It isn't the first time he's discussed how beneficial therapy can be. Last November, while promoting his album 4:44, he told The New York Times that he "grew so much from the experience" he had with a therapist he found through friends. Being more aware of his own emotions in everyday life, he said, put him at "such an advantage" in terms of how he responds to the world, as well as how he understands other people.
In a society where standards of masculinity can keep men from talking about emotional well-being, it's not only refreshing to see one of the most famous musicians in the world discuss therapy so frankly; it's reflective of a masculine ethos the world needs more of.
Wizdom Powell, PhD, MPH, director of the Health Disparities Institute at University of Connecticut Health and associate professor of psychiatry, says that men, and particularly boys and men of color, are generally discouraged from seeking any kind of help at all — let alone help with mental health issues.
"Men are socialized from a very early age to deny bodily signs and symptoms, to minimize psychological distress," she says. "If you believe that you’re supposed to be a certain kind of macho man, and you’re unable to consistently be that or reflect that in the world, then you have an inner conflict, and there’s a discrepancy between what the world wants and what you want to be. That creates a turmoil around help-seeking."
All of this, then, is why Jay-Z's comments are so noteworthy.
"To see a musician like Jay-Z speak so openly about his own condition really shines a light on the shame that many people feel," says Katrina Gay, a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). "Stigma is such an issue for everyone, but particularly for people within the African-American community, and even men."
In fact, according to NAMI, African-Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, but only about one-quarter of African-Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of white people. And according to a 2013 study of African-American men and women's attitudes towards mental illness, African-American men, in particular, were more concerned about stigma.
Dr. Powell says that being emotionally vulnerable has historically put Black men and boys in peril, and she cites slavery and the Civil Rights Movement as "moments where disclosing and being open put you in the pathway for oppression" — a history that "still lives with boys and men of color."
"Racism and the experience of having your humanity chipped away little by little through this persistent and chronic discrimination work together in tandem with male norms to push further back against getting help," she says. "Why would you put yourself out there when the world constantly reminds you that you’re viewed with less empathy and people don’t value your full humanity?"
For Jay-Z, his tough "survival mode" attitude before he entered therapy impacted how he emotionally connected with women.
"You have to survive," he told The New York Times. "So you go into survival mode, and when you go into survival mode what happen? You shut down all emotions. So even with women, you gonna shut down emotionally, so you can't connect. In my case, like it's, it's deep. And then all the things happen from there: infidelity."
Infidelity, of course, is not something people have an easy time sweeping under the rug — but barring whatever you may feel about that, Dr. Powell says that it's great to see someone as famous as Jay-Z be candid about seeking help in therapy.
"Jay-Z speaks about it, and the world listens," she says. "That’s why it’s so critical. It models, for young boys and men — particularly young boys and men who consume his music — that being open about your emotional life can welcome in more love, more respect, more connection to the human world."
As the #MeToo movement has engulfed the world, the conversation has also turned to how gender roles impact all of us, not only within relationships, but also in terms of how men discuss their emotions — which, in turn, can affect how they relate to people around them. In that sense, Dr. Powell says that Jay-Z's relative emotional transparency might put forth a positive, rather than toxic, form of masculinity.
"That reframing of masculinity as an opportunity to 'be a man' about your own health, to 'be a man' about your family, is exactly the kind of narrative destruction we need in this country around masculinity," she says. "There is something powerful about taking masculinities and reframing them in a positive way, and I think that’s what his comments reflect."
And if there was ever going to be a time for us to reframe and reconsider how we define masculinity, it's now.