Tips for Black men's self care-beating the odds of premature death

By Reginald Williams

A.Z. Matthews learned that he had stage 3 cancer. Then he committed suicide. He was 29.

Shawn Byers was enjoying an evening at his girlfriend’s house. Following dinner, Shawn fell ill. He asked his girlfriend to call 9-1-1. Shortly after EMS arrived, Byers died. He was 54.

Ricky Platt died on the operating table. His heart failed. He was 65.

Matthews, Byers, and Platt are three Black men whose lives bear out the data that reports Black men die prematurely. Black men have the lowest life expectancy of all demographic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, Black men die four years earlier than White men and seven years earlier than Black women.

Self-reported suicide attempts by Black adolescent boys rose greater than 50 percent between 1991 and 2017. In 2014, 80 percent of suicide deaths in the Black community were men. The premature death of Black men is a public health issue.

Austin Frakt, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, notes, “Black men experience the worst health outcomes of any other demographic group, and at age 45, Black men have a life expectancy that is three years less than non-Hispanic White men.”

A Black man’s health inequities are worsened by persistent micro aggressions Black men experience, which pushes them to often resort to violence.

Violence erupting in communities of color often pushes angry and volatile young Black men to carry out acts of retribution, a contributing factor in the unfortunate deaths of Black men.

Violence-Related Disparities Experienced by Black Youth and Young Adults, a 2018 research article, reports that Black adolescents are at “higher risk of violence,” including homicide. According to the CDC, Black men and boys ages 15 to 34 make up two percent of the population but account for 37 percent of the nation’s homicides.

Beyond the devastation suffered by violence, specifically gun violence, men’s immovable resolve to live by an “I’m a’ight” paradigm presents an equally contributing component to loss of life.

According to Roland Thorpe, Jr., Ph.D., MS, Health Behavior and Society professor, and founding director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health, Black men distrust the medical system.

“The first time we go to the doctor, we’re in the ER because we didn’t go get the annual check-ups,” Thorpe said.

Black men’s mistrust of the medical system is deeply rooted. The Tuskegee Experiment continues to drive their distrust. Conducted in 1932, the United States Public Health Service enlisted approximately 600 African American men to partake in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

During this experiment, medical professionals used Black men to see how untreated syphilis would attack their body. Despite having a cure for the venereal disease, doctors, backed by the government, watched as Black suffered and died.

Ninety years later, research shows that Black men continue to receive substandard medical care. The National Academy of Medicine reports that “Racial and ethnic [men] receive lower-quality health care than white [men]—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.” The pandemic continued to reveal the health of Black men as Black men died from COVID at a rate that exceeded all other groups.

If Black men are to reverse these diminishing health trends, they must employ several tactics. First, Black men must take control of their health. Change the corrosive narrative of what it means to be a man and what is required to be healthy. That mindset that readily embraces, big boys don’t cry, or I’m strong, or I’m a’ight are ideologies that keep Black men sick.

“Black men must break the fear of going to the doctor and all the stigmas and taboos associated with their health care,” said Dr. Roderick E. Wellington, Ed.D, NCC, LCPC. “It is a must that we become engaged and educated about our health.”

Black men must become conscious and intentional about what they place in their bodies. “Simply put, we must give our bodies more respect,” said Carlos Adams, BSN (male doula) and chef.

“We eat because it tastes good. We eat because we are hungry or because we are at social events that cater food, but we were never taught that eating to empower ourselves on a cellular level is actually the purpose of eating at all.”

So much of health, good or bad, is what is contained in what we eat. Most foods stored at home are spiked with preservatives that preserve the food while slowly creating an internal demise. Enriched flour, high fructose corn syrup, gums, starches, acids, and sodium benzoate are just some of the ingredients in food leading to diabetes, hypertension, and spiking mental disorders. “We have to really start making the health of our cells a priority,” maintains Adams.

David, Dr. Wellington’s 76-year-old brother, walks daily, eats healthy, and has lived past a Black man’s average age by six years. David is mindful of his health not for his quality of life but his quality of death. “When I die, I want it to be peaceful,” said David.

For more improved health outcomes, Black men should also seek the services of Black physicians.

“Black men seen by Black doctors agreed to more and more invasive, preventive services than those seen by non-Black doctors. And this effect seemed to be driven by better communication and more trust,” writes Nicole Torres, author of Having a Black Doctor Led Black Men to Receive More-Effective Care.

Black men must also be dogmatic in conducting their own health research and working collaboratively with their doctors. Their doctor is a source of information, not the sole source of information.

Follow Reginald Williams at reginaldwilliams.org, twitter or instagram. You can also purchase copies of the groundbreaking book A Marginalized Voice by visiting amvonlinestore.com.