Men (Of Color), Masculinity, and Mental Illness

MarShawn M. McCarrel II, 23, was a Black Lives Matter activist, a poet, and a believer in social justice.

He, like so many others, fought for a world that would include all of us to feel free and secure.

Unfortunately, McCarrell committed suicide earlier this month, in the Ohio State House. Before doing so, he wrote on Facebook the following message:

“My demons won today. I’m sorry.”

McCarrell did suffer from depression and some might say that the time spent as an activist took a toll. After all, when you’re trying your best to make a difference, you also see more of the problems around you, from the shooting deaths of black and brown men and women to the chronic poverty many communities face. It can feel like a burden.

I don’t want to assume I know what McCarrell was going through when he decided to end his life. I am not African-American. I am not an activist like he was. Honestly, I am not as brave.

However, I often wonder, ever since learning about what happened to him, why didn’t he feel compelled to share how he felt with others before taking the step he took? It sounded familiar to me.

When I was younger, I remember how me and my friends (most of us were South Asian American men) talking about our favorite movies, video games, athletes, and who we liked in high-school. Ultimately, we always steered clear of our emotions. At one point, I myself referred to us opening up to our feelings as “white boy stuff.” It reminded me of what the character, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, would do, which was, in my friend’s words at that time, “bitch and whine.” Thing was, as men of color, we didn’t have time for that. We couldn’t allow ourselves any vulnerability.

Personally, I grew up with two disadvantages.

One: I was brown.

Two: I was short.

The combination is typically not the ideal. I remember how in Queens, it was very easy to be singled out by the other boys (again, mostly of color) and how we’d tease and taunt one another for whatever slight or weakness. Moving into the suburbs wasn’t much of an improvement, as I became accustomed to still feeling distant and small. Still, I formed a thick skin in the process. The last thing I wanted was for whomever was trying to hurt me to succeed and see my emotion on my sleeve. That would’ve been humiliation.

When I even began participating more in groups at college that dealt with racial issues and visibility, I’d never share what I was really feeling inside with anyone but very close friends. In that regard, I was fortunate. But I still can picture myself, age 19, in my dorm room, the sadness swelling up in my chest, being emotionally attached to the Iraq War, to viewing people who looked like me being cut down by bombs and poverty. It was easy to feel lost and ashamed. Sometimes, the survivor’s guilt that  accompanied moving from Queens into a better neighborhood far away in the depths of New Jersey would also rise up, and fill my every joint and ounce of my being, causing me to feel heavy.

And yet, I still wouldn’t express myself openly, the paranoia of white male faces laughing and clapping at my demise preventing me from doing so.

I had to win.

I had to remain “strong.”

According to the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, South Asian Americans—especially those between the ages of 15-24—were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.

Also, South Asian Americans “had the lowest rate of utilization of mental health services—which is a conclusion that should come as no surprise to anyone raised in the desi community.”

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population” and only one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites. In fact, “African American men are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.”

It’s clear that mental illness is an issue in our communities, including among men. Again, I don’t know what McCarrel was exactly going through but his situation leaves me asking questions, like:

To what extent does masculinity affect men of color differently than white males?

To how much does it contribute to our mental state?

Why don’t we do enough to combat “it”? Whatever “It” is?

My final thought, to help center ourselves, is, even though McCarrel lost his life at a young age, he made an impact. He was invested in social justice, including working on homelessness.

Remember him.

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