By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
It has been said, “Your health is your wealth.” For African American men, this holds especially true, according to medical experts.
Black men have the highest health problems compared to other racial groups in the United States. They also have the lowest life expectancy rate and the highest death rate due to certain conditions compared to other ethnic groups, according to data published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the police brutality and killings of Black people in the United States, African American men’s mental health is also at risk.
In an effort to tackle the concerns surrounding physical and mental health, the NAACP hosted a Men’s Health Virtual Town Hall June 10. The meeting focused on the overall health of Black males, vaccines and mental wellbeing.
The forum was hosted by radio personality Joe Clair and included lead policymakers, researchers and health advocates such as: Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; Dr. Cameron Webb, White House Senior Policy Advisor for COVID-19 Equity; Kofi Siriboe, actor and entrepreneur; Dr. Robert Drummond, physician scientist, lead clinician and director of laboratories at Montebello Urgent Care Center at OPTUM, and Dr. Myron Rolle, senior neurosurgeon resident and Global Neurosurgery Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
“Oftentimes, we talk about the segmentation of health care based on race,” Johnson said. “But many of us, we don’t take care of our health, whether it is physical health, mental health or spiritual health. That is really important and that is why we are having this discussion.”
Webb kicked off the conversation by discussing where African American men sit with the COVID-19 pandemic overall.
“What’s interesting is if you look over the arch of this pandemic and if you go back to last March, and then move forward to today, it’s been different at different points in time early on, we just didn’t know the data of who was being disproportionately affected,” Webb said. “I remember this is when Dr. Rolle was telling the story of what was happening in Boston and showcasing for the world just how dire the situation was. And at that time, we were seeing four times the case rates and communities of color and Black men were being just disproportionately affected in terms of the number of cases. Then we started to see it manifested in terms of the number of hospitalizations, then the number of COVID deaths.”
Black men and the COVID vaccine
Webb then talked about how the coronavirus impacted Black men after Dec. 15, 2020 – after COVID-19 shots were being administered.
“We’ve seen Black men having lower rates of vaccination than almost any other demographic,” Webb said. “And I think that’s also really critical for folks to know, because the vaccines of how effective they are, and how safe they are, they’ve dropped the rate of deaths by 80%. They’ve dropped the rate of hospitalizations by 70%. And that benefit accrues only to the people who get vaccinated.
Webb said that Black men are being disproportionately left behind in the fight against COVID-19 for several reasons. He said some people are concerned about historic atrocities such as the Tuskegee experiment, as well as contemporary atrocities in the health care systems.
“I think that’s why we need to have conversations like this, because none of us are here to sell anybody a vaccine. But all of us are here to give folks the facts,” Webb stated.
Drummond expanded on the statistics on how the African American community views the vaccine effectiveness.
“Early on, we saw a lot of hesitancy within the Black community, and I think you saw the graphs come out, where they said that African Americans were the lowest in terms of wanting the vaccine,” Drummond said. “But at some point, studies from places like the Kaiser Family Foundation saw that that’s shifted. And it’s actually not African Americans that are the most vaccine hesitant. But that gets into the problem of what Dr. Webb just mentioned.
“Now, we want the vaccines, but they haven’t been getting into our arms at the rate that they have been getting into the arms of others. And so, there’s a number of things that are at play there. You can continue to point to a mountain of hesitancy that I think is still there. And that’s there across the board, and almost all ethnicities, all groups. But in addition to that hesitancy, there’s also just a lack of what we call health literacy.
“And so my job, what I kind of took it upon myself to do from the beginning of the pandemic, is to just educate my people. And that’s something that I’ve been pretty much working around the clock and doing since last March; putting up videos, explaining the stuff talking about the virus, talking about the disease, breaking it down.”
Rolle talked about his experience dealing with the pandemic as a neurosurgeon.
“When the pandemic was hitting Boston in particular, a hotbed for infections, we sort of had to transition from doing our elective cases, seeing our patients in clinic and now moving towards involving ourselves in the emergency department and ICU,” Rolle said. “Typically, our patient population is White. But when the pandemic hit, I saw a flip in that. I saw a lot more Black people in our hospital in the EDL, taking care of a lot more Black individuals. I think it had to do with a body that was susceptible to a very infectious virus that had a propensity for hitting individuals who are sick at baseline and had several comorbidities.”
Rolle said behavior and lifestyle modifications necessary for staying healthy during the pandemic – such as frequent hand washing and social distancing – were also compromised for Black and Brown communities, but hospitals are addressing the issue regarding groups that don’t have as much access to health care in this pandemic.
“I’m glad that my hospital and other hospitals and other institutions are seeing that there’s a health disparity seeing that there’s a gap,” he said. “And now, trying to figure out ways how we can best prepare Black men for the next pandemic, for the next wave to come build up our house, initially so that when you know we do get faced with something like this in the future, we’re ready to go.”
Claire then asked the panel how they could combat the stigma regarding COVID-19.
Webb suggested having conversations about the virus and the vaccine in day-to-day life with others.
“I had to go to the shop for that,” Webb said. “I think that what happens is that when you’re going to barber shops, those are natural places of conversation of interaction and engagement. And I remember going to my barber for the first time, a couple months back after I got my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and he said, ‘You know, it’s okay. Did you take the jab?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I took it.’ And he’s like, ‘You doing all right?’
“You know we had that kind of frank conversation, just laughing and joking about it. I told him everything was just fine. I had no problems with it and talked about the experience. When I came back a couple of weeks later, it was after I’d gotten my second dose. I talked about how everything was good. And I had that peace of mind about being vaccinated. He said at that time, he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it. And it turned into barbershop talk.”
He said he watched the room transform as they discussed COVID vaccines pros and cons, the merits and the concerns and people became more comfortable talking about it. When he returned, his barber had been vaccinated.
“When I came back the time after that he had begun, you know, serving essentially as a directory sending people to the places where they could be vaccinated,” Webb recalled. “And then most recently, just about two weeks ago, he posted a vaccination event in his barber shop. That’s the arc of what happens through authentic, very real conversation.”
These conversations are not just happening in Charlottesville, Virginia, he insisted, they’re happening in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Niagara Falls – all across Maryland. Moreover, the conversations are not just taking place in barber shops or beauty salons. They are happening throughout communities in the places where residents live, learn, eat and pray.
“I think that’s where these conversations are going to have the most success, if it happens in the flow of our regular life,” he said. “But it takes everybody who’s viewing this conversation to take this back to family members, to neighbors, to friends, to co-workers, and have these frank conversations to get the truth out to beat back the misinformation.”
Johnson encouraged other business leaders to take the lead as well in educating people about getting vaccinated.
“The beautiful thing about that example, the barber shop is a great equalizer,” Johnson said. “Regardless of your walk of life, when you walk into a Black barber shop, everyone’s equal. And that’s when we have a responsibility to push facts over fear, to push facts over fantasy, to allow people to hear how we should position ourselves, and to keep our communities healthy.
“The problem sometimes is that we get distracted with social media, because it’s so impersonal. And in many cases, those are individuals who just want to make some noise. But if we talk to people, one on one, in every community, people are looking for the validator. And that validator is the one that really sets the tone, the normalization that is culturally acceptable. And so we all have a responsibility to make sure we equip ourselves with facts, so we can overcome fear so we can overcome fantasy, and people respect that.”
The generation gap
Afterwards, Claire compared his generation’s views of the vaccine to the younger generations’ views.
“I’m of the generation that has the vaccination,” Claire said. “We’ll call it the scar that everybody has from back in the day that young people see and wonder what is that? I’m like, that’s why I got vaccinated.”
Claire asked the panel what’s the difference now, between those vaccinations in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and this vaccination right now that is causing concern for some people.
“One of the things that we recognized in some of the focus groups we started doing is less about hesitancy and more about access, the more access people have information to facts, and to take the vaccine, the more people receive the vaccine. We have, and rightfully so, because of the history of this country, we are on the border of overreacting around the question of hesitancy and not aggressively acting enough around providing facts and directing towards where people can actually get the vaccine,” Johnson said.
“It’s really important for the African American community, because we are quick to get to the deficit of what’s not possible, what cannot happen and what we’re not doing, when in fact, it is possible because it’s in front of us that we can do it. We’ve done it over the history. And it’s really important that we push the positive narrative, so people can understand that if we don’t do what’s necessary. We’ll put our families at risk, we keep our communities at risk, and we are at risk.”
Drummond said the internet and social media also has played a role in how people view the vaccine.
“I think another issue that we’re having is that this is new technology,” Drummond said. “It’s not new to us scientists. But with the information highway comes the misinformation highway. And so we’re having to battle with the misinformation about it’s going to change your DNA, or it’s going to have microchips and blowing, etc. There’s actually no trace metal in either of the mRNA vaccines. I think one of the things that I’ve tried to do is just educate about these nucleic acid vaccines, these mRNA vaccines. We also need to make sure we do a good job of pressing the issue of making sure our people have access.”
The panelists then discussed the importance of taking care of one’s mental health and making it a priority.
“I would say tell people, it’s okay if they’re not feeling mentally strong,” Johnson said. “And it’s okay to talk to people, talk to professionals. There is this taboo and has been in our community that something must be wrong with you if you have counseling in psychological support.
We’re going to have to have an aggressive conversation in our community to provide support or allow people to understand that it’s okay to pursue mental health counseling, it’s okay to create a circle of friends and it’s okay to really lean into your spiritual self so you can come out of what we just witnessed of this extreme isolation or extreme closeness.”
WTF is Mental Health
In conclusion, Siriboe joined the discussion and gave his perspective as an actor and a celebrity. Siriboe has been working on a mental health initiative and has a film called Jump and the follow up, WTF is Mental Health. Both address the issues of negative stigma in the Black community regarding mental health.
“In 2015, right before I started Queen Sugar, a good friend of mine passed away on mental health issues with a suicide and it was just unexpected,” Siriboe said. “When I had the opportunity, I wrapped up on set that first season, I said I want to make a project, and I want it to be about something that not only is real, but also relative. And even though I wasn’t the one who jumped off the bridge, I know that feeling. That’s kind of just where I went with it creatively. It wasn’t just because I wanted to make a mental health film. But I wanted to just convey how I’m feeling right now.”
Siriboe was asked how the Black community can get past the stigma of mental health and begin taking care of their mental health.
“I feel like we have to be able to share information and have the conversation without the stigma being like the anchor of the conversation,” he said. “We got to create spaces where the solution is priority, the problem is still being dealt with, but we actually get the community to be able to imagine, outside of our circumstances and I feel like that’s a creative approach that can happen through all kinds of avenues. I feel like it’s that simple, but how we make that happen, that’s something we all got to figure out together.”