Black Men and Mental Health

Going Through Difficult Roads Leading to Beautiful Destinations: Michael Gales Testimony  

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Michael Gales is a man with a huge heart. As an essential worker for two different occupations, he is forced to put others' needs before his own. Aside from his demanding careers, Michael is a son, a brother, and a single father of one college-aged daughter. With all his responsibilities, sometimes his life can get a little overwhelming, and he must find healthy ways to gather the pieces of his life and, somehow, put it all back together.

When approached with sharing his story about Black men and Mental issues, Michael was more than willing to share how deals with the pressure of facing mental health issues. He gave me a transparent look into his childhood growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, and his experiences morphing into manhood. Michael talked to me about the strains that hostile stereotyping society placed on Black men during his teenage and college years and how putting others' needs before his own triggered his stress. He also shares the techniques he uses to deal with the pressure.

Please be inspired and motivated by Michael's story. I hope his words encourage anyone dealing with the burden of mental issues to seek professionals for the sake of their overall health.

 

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RJ:

First, I want to thank you, Michael, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me today on the topic of mental illness and the effects it has on Black men. Let us begin by telling me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?

 

 MG:

 

I grew up here in Atlanta, Georgia. I am a true "ATLian."  Both my parents and much of my family are from here as well.  I did everything as a kid growing up, from playing sports and going to the skating rinks. I did it all, and it was good – I enjoyed growing up in Atlanta. Also, I am a member of Omega Si Phi Fraternity, Inc.

 

RJ:

 

What is your current occupation?

 

MG:

 

I am a firefighter, an EMT, and a photographer. I am what one will call a jack of all trades.

RJ:

 

What made you decide to be a firefighter? Have you always wanted to be in that profession?

MG:

 

No, I did not. When I was in college, I had an older frat brother asked me if I wanted to join the Birmingham Fire Department, and I told him no, I did not want to be a firefighter. He was the Birmingham Fire Department chief, and I told him no, I was not staying in Alabama, and I was not becoming a firefighter. Fast Forward some years, and I was doing various jobs like graphic designs and photography. My mom and her friend were like, look, you've got to find more of a stable job, what do you want to do? The Police Department is hiring -The fire department is hiring.  I said I'll be damned if I become a police officer. So, you know, I looked at the fire department and said, you know what? I can do that. So here I am. I've been with the fire department for eleven years.

RJ:

 

So, I'm going to move on to questions surrounding our topic on mental health. I did some research, and many studies show that men, especially black men, are under pressure to appear strong and stoic. It does not matter how badly they are hurting. Have you ever had to deal with this type of pressure growing up as a young black man in your household or your community?

MG:

 

I can't say that I dealt with that pressure growing up because you get different phases again, you know, as a black male. My dad is still present. My mom is still here. So, it wasn't like I had to become the head of the household immediately. I am the older brother to my sister, so, you know, it was always, take care of your sister.  With the typical male things like, don't cry for everything. I had one story where we had the neighborhood bully. He was the guy who liked to beat up on everybody. I got into one of the few fights in my life that I probably ran from in my day. He hit me, and I ran home. My dad asked what happened, and I explained that the boy ran up behind me and hit me for no reason. My dad said, you need to go out there and fight. No, you’re not coming in the house because you don't run from a fight. So, I went back out and fought, and I happened to win. This same boy tried to fight me again, and I won the second time. After the second fight, he left me alone. So, my father taught me to never run from a fight. It also taught me that when things get hard, you don't give up. But that's back in the day when the people still used their hands. They didn't use guns. As you get older, things change, and you begin to understand how to deal with certain situations.

As a Black male growing up, you had your typical male, not just black male, but male things. As time goes by, you get older, and you start dealing with adding the Black part into it. I went to a private school in grade school, so I did not deal with many race issues. At least not unit the later part of middle school. I can't say it was a race thing – more like, boys being boys. I got picked on because my dad was still around, and some of their fathers weren't around. Other than those instances, I did not deal with a lot of pressure growing up as a Black male. I believe my parents sheltered me from that.

RJ:

 

Would you say your dad allowed you to show certain emotions often criticized by others as a Black man?

MG:

So, my dad, his dad was not present in his life, so he didn't show emotion. My mom taught me how to show emotion. She taught me that it is vital to show emotion. And I learned on my own that you must show emotion, and I do. What feelings do I display? That's a different story. I believe it is about when to show emotion because, no matter what, just in a male sense, you don't want to appear weak. And that pressure, it's a societal thing. Not necessarily a Black male thing, but a societal thing.

 

And I can say, the only pressure encountered as a Black male was don't go to jail before you're 24 years old because I was a statistic. I graduated high school in 1997, and at that time, I was told that a percentage of Black men, I can't remember the rate, but a large number of Black men my age will be dead or have a criminal record by the age of 24 years old. Also, I was told that we would become baby daddies. I made it to 23 years old before I had my daughter. But I defeated that because there's a stereotype behind that, which states we will abandon our children and we are not good dads. My daughter is 18 years of age, has a full ride to the University of Kentucky, and I probably do more for my daughter than her mother. So, yeah, that stereotype did not refer to me. And I was not pressured to take care of her. It was a natural reaction. I believe if you have children, be a father and take care of your child or children. That's how I was raised; it wasn't any pressure to do it.

 

RJ:

 

Tell me about an unpleasant occurrence that has impacted your mental health.

 

MG:

 

I'm a Firefighter. Look, I mean, this is what we do every day - we do what we do, and we face much stuff. We are what you call your real neighborhood superhero. As a firefighter and EMT, I am expected to be involved in everybody's emergency. So, when you're at your worst moment, we are there. When you're having the most challenging time, we are there. And we're expected to either make it better for you or help you deal with any situation that is going on. So, we must internalize what you have going on. There are times when I am carrying the weight of what everyone else has going on while trying to deal with my issues. I must put what I have going on aside for the sake of serving the community. Also, as an EMT, I'm looking at 30 - well over 30 hours, where my mindset is focused on everybody else. No matter what I have going on in my personal life.

 

RJ:

 

What are some techniques you use to cope with dealing with those issues?

 

MG:

 

I leave it at work. I do my best when I say that. Some things you can't, they are just there. But, you know, I work out at the gym. I like to cook, barbecue on the grill. I do photography, so I participate in things totally different from front-line work. If I can go out of town, I go and, If I can sit at home and do nothing, I do that as well.

Even now, at 41, I'm getting into learning about different guns as a hobby. So, I like to go to the ranch, which sometimes I can be my own little world for a while. Also, I visited a therapist. As a first responder, we deal with so much, and it helps to talk to a therapist and release my personal feelings.  It is a way to balance between work and personal.  So, I utilize those type of things because it is there, and sometimes balancing both is not easy.

 

RJ: 

 

Now that we are experiencing a global pandemic, has your mental health been compromised because of the significant changes we have to adapt to? Do you deal with fear, edginess, or nerves? 

 

MG:

 

I mean, for me, it's OK because it's my job. It's amusing because many people and I had this argument. When this whole pandemic popped out, everybody was like, oh, my God, what are you going to do? I said to them, if I'm scared about this, I can't do my job. My job is to deal with all of this, regardless of how others may feel. We've been dealing with this since before May of this year. We started noticing cases in February of 2020. We've dealt with Ebola; we've dealt with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). We go to anybody's house at any moment, there's no telling what we can catch and bring home to our families. So, we deal with stuff all the time. So, if I'm scared of this, then guess what? I'm going to be scared no matter what. I have to take my time to do my precautions by wearing my mask and staying safe.  Every day, I am around various diseases because it is my job. I've had COVID, which was very stressful. But I went to the doctor and made sure to follow the procedures for getting well. I am a 41-year-old firefighter who's in good shape, goes to the gym, works out, has no underlying health conditions. When something's wrong, I take it seriously enough to say, OK, something is not right with my body, and I see my doctor. Now, I am fully recovered and doing well. 

RJ:

 

Do you often still feel supported by others around you, like your friends, your family, and your work colleagues?

MG:

 

I feel that not everybody's going to get where you are. There are days when I rather not be bothered with anybody. And, those days when I'd rather be alone, here comes everybody who wants to talk to me or be around me. For the most part, I feel supported by my family and others around me, but sometimes they do not understand where my stress comes from. My main concern and most immense pressure come from the push/pull of my time. And I am not able to live in the same time frame as everyone else.

 

RJ:

 

Please explain what you mean about the push/pull of your time and how it affects you.

 

MG:

 

You know, because of my job, I leave home at 5:30 in the morning, and I don't get home until 9 pm the next evening. So, when I finally get a day off, I have people who need me to help them with so much. It can be members of my family or friends. I'm always moving and making sure I meet everyone's needs, but sometimes, I just want to stay at home. I mean, I have my own house to take care of so, staying in and resting is essential, but I get very little rest.  Especially being a firefighter, the bell rings as soon as we try to rest from a call.  And, since I'm a driver, I need to be on high alert. Some days, the bell rings non-stop. So, I lack immense rest. Also, there are times when I do want to travel and enjoy time away with certain friends and family, but my time is not conducive to the time they may have off. Being an essential worker, especially during this time, we cannot afford to be understaffed for the fire department or the EMT.

 

RJ:

 

How Frequently do you find time to do something meaningful to you?

 

MG:

 

Despite the high demand for my job, I will say, every day. Recently, I had a fraternity brother pass away from a tragic accident. A tree fell on his house during a bad storm here in Atlanta and killed him. He just turned 30 years old. While attending his funeral, one of the speakers said something profound that will stick with me forever. He said, "don't spend your time counting the days; spend your time making your days count." It made me think about my job and everything I do for others. If I can make someone else day better and help bring them peace, I am making my days count, which is a good day for me.

RJ:

 

That is so kind of you. It would help if you found some time to unwind for yourself. It is vital to your mental health. Do you think so?

 

MG:

 

Sometimes, I take time out to do some photography. I'll find some time to take a nap or browse the internet, specifically Tic Toc. And, I will turn on a marathon of completely mindless crime shows. It does not cause me to think because it has no point to it.

RJ:

 

What are your hopes and dreams for the future and, how are you working toward achieving those goals?

MG:

 

I go to work every day. You can't make a goal unless you put effort into it. I mean, one day, I want to own a photography studio and, eventually, I want to become a Fire Chief. Every day I get up, and I go to work because I need to make money to stack to the side to take care of my house and afford my studio. Also, I must work hard on my job to one day become a fire chief.

I'm just fortunate that everything I do, I enjoy. I don't have a job and that I can't stand to go to work every day. 

I have high expectations and desires, but I also don't put so many stipulations on things because you must leave room for error, and you have to make errors to learn. Errors give room for adjustments, growth, or the ability to be different. Don't stress about putting so many restrictions on things.

 

RJ:

 

Do you have any sound advice for men who may be reluctant to talk or seek help about any mental health issues? 

 

MG:

 

It doesn't hurt to talk to someone. We, as men, have a terrible habit of believing we can solve and fix everything ourselves. Therapists are educated and certified to help handle specific issues, so we should allow them to do their jobs. They are trained to address mental health issues and stress-related issues.

 

RJ:

 

OK, well, that finalizes our talk on Black men and Mental health. I want to thank you for your time and participation.  I appreciate your transparency and advice to other men on ways to deal with mental illness safely.

 

MG:

 

You're welcome. Thank you for having me speak on this critical issue.