In the Burroughs | Children's Minnesota | The Kid Experts

Boys do cry: Black male mental health matters

We didn’t use the word “trauma” when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s in Detroit, Michigan. Even though it was all around us, we just thought this is how life is supposed to be.  

I was born in 1967 in Detroit in the midst of the riots. My mom was six months pregnant with me when police and the National Guard took over the city with tanks and police patrols in the aftermath of police violence at an after-hours club. The Detroit riots were among the bloodiest and deadliest during that time. I was born into trauma, but I never knew it. 

The list and the lyrics

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, every summer the newspaper would print a list of all the young Black kids who were shot and killed during the summer. I would look at their names, faces and home addresses every year. I knew some of the kids killed and others just resonated with me because they looked like me. They were all Black kids like me. Reviewing these images every summer caused me trauma, but I never knew it. 

“Don’t cry, dry your eyes,” was a popular rap lyric of Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh in the tune “La Di Da Di.” It was also a mantra for how young Black boys were raised in the 70s and 80s. I was told as a young boy, “boys don’t cry.” “Real men don’t shed tears.” I was also told that real men don’t show their feelings. It was almost as if people didn’t care about your feelings. Not crying and not showing my feelings caused me problems. But I never knew it.

James Burroughs in high school football uniform
Me in the 1980s
At high school graduation

You’re not welcome, doe

In Detroit we greeted each other not with “how you doing” but with “what up, doe.” “What up, doe” means I can keep you at a distance by rolling by you. I can nod my head, in acknowledgement of your existence, but I’m not asking how you are, nor asking you about your feelings or emotional well-being. Keeping people at a distance through distant greetings like “what up, doe” allowed me to avoid addressing trauma and its impact, but I never knew it. 

Growing up in Detroit also taught me that there were more than a few suburbs outside the city that were not welcoming to me or my friends. As I got older, I learned that as a Black man you couldn’t go outside the city of Detroit. If you went to Dearborn after a certain hour, white residents would call the police on you because you were a young Black kid in their part of town. Powerful Black leaders like Mayor Coleman Young also intimidated people in these suburbs and caused a political fight between Black and white residents. These political fights and interaction between Black and white residents caused me trauma, but I never knew it.  

A sobering statistic

You hear the word trauma more often these days, but there’s still stigma associated with it in the Black community. We don’t talk about our mental health enough, even though Black children are twice as likely to die by suicide than white children. 

Recently I was part of a panel discussion called Black Men and Mental Health hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. I want to thank Jahmal Miller of CommonSpirit Health for the invitation and the trust in me to participate in this important conversation. Listening to my fellow panelists and folks in the audience, it’s clear: We have to show our young people how to acknowledge, talk about, and address their trauma. We have to teach them that it is OK to ask for help. And then we have to make sure they get the help they need. We must make sure they know what trauma is and that they know how to address it. 

Next month Children’s Minnesota is opening its first inpatient mental health unit. What if none of the caregivers understood what’s going on with their young Black patients or the effects of the trauma many of them face daily? If I want to get assistance with my mental health, I want to see psychologists and psychiatrists who look like me. We must have people serving patients and families who look like them and have similar experiences. Cultural humility, cultural understanding and culturally responsive care is a must for success. If we don’t create an environment with racial diversity and cultural humility, we may cause more trauma to kids who resemble me and my ways from back in the day. We know what trauma is and its negative impacts, so we must do better. 

We’ve got to get this right!  

The right kind of care

We need to provide culturally humble and knowledgeable care to people of all races and ethnicities. We’ve got to talk to our kids about their feelings, their mental health, their sexuality, their gender identity and more. And we’ve got to start doing it when they’re young, so they don’t have to go through what I went through as a kid. They need to know that trauma exists, and it is ok to address it.   

It took me a while to realize it, but I know that I have to take care of my mental health. If I don’t, I can’t succeed at my most important job, being a great dad to my 10-year-old daughter Teresa. I am a Black man who is willing to address my mental health needs. Are you? 

James Burroughs

James Burroughs
Senior vice president, government and community relations, chief equity and inclusion officer

James Burroughs is the senior vice president, government and community relations, chief equity and inclusion officer at Children's Minnesota. He is responsible for advancing equity and inclusion in all parts of the organization.
Follow James on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Julianna Olsen