What does institutional racism look like? For Dr. Daphne C. Watkins, it looked like a void. It looked like the absence of information. Inspired by her father's depression, Watkins began researching the mental health of young, black men at a pivotal time in their lives: during college. What she found was not much.
"In all of the work that I explored," says Watkins, a University of Michigan associate professor in the School of Social Work and the School of Medicine, "it didn't seem they were very well represented in the science. There were a lot of studies where there was an oversampling of black college women, but not a lot of men."
How can institutions, from universities to medical facilities, address the mental health needs of college-age black men, if so little was known about them? How can families like Watkins' growing up help their loved ones when research hasn't facilitated solutions that meet their needs? Watkins set out to fill the research gap, and now, years later, she's building on her research with action—and more research.
The project is called the Young Black Men, Masculinities, and Mental Health (YBMen) project
, a social media-based intervention that seeks to combat that lack of support, information and conversation around critical issues affecting what Watkins calls "a minority within a minority."
YBMen's early successes
As an undergraduate several years back, the silence around mental health issues is exactly what U-M School of Education Doctoral Candidate Blake Noel recalls.
"For the most part, it was neglected or a non-issue," he says, "Masculinity was something that you might exhibit or you might learn somehow by osmosis, but I don't think we had a lot of explicit conversations about masculinity or mental health when I was in school."
So when he joined Watkins' YBMen team, he was fascinated by the questions being asked, but had no idea what to expect. It certainly wasn't the overwhelming response that happened when the project was rolled out last year at Jackson College. The men involved in the YBMen Facebook group dove into issues they'd never discussed before —even with those close to them.
"They'd see people on campus all the time and they'd talk to them," says Noel, "but they really did not have an understanding of their shared struggle."
Students in the same math class had no idea they had the same concerns —even a pair of cousins in the project learned things about each other's lives, things they never knew they had in common, until the topic came up on the Facebook page.
How YBMen works —thus far, as a research project— is that two groups of young black men volunteer to participate. Both groups are given a survey about certain perceptions they have about the world and themselves, and then half of the men join the Facebook group. After the project, both groups take another survey to determine the impact of the social media intervention.
During each of the five to eight week intervention, a new topic is raised, such as mental health, masculinity or social support. Watkins' team poses a question to the group such as how their relationships with women are influenced by things they were taught in childhood.
"Then we'll challenge their assumptions," Watkins says, "not necessarily to shoot down ideas, but so when they're making decisions about masculinity, [they can] be fully aware of what they're choosing."
Not only were the conversations provocative and surprising, but so were the overall reactions to the YBMen project itself. "We asked, 'Why did you participate in this?'" says Watkins. "They said things like, 'No one has ever asked me what I thought before. No one has even acted like they cared.'"
National demand for YBMen
For a project in its early stages, YBMen has also generated a provocative and surprising national response. Organizations have approached Watkins to commercialize the project, and foundations have offered to fund its expansion to other universities.
But Watkins is committed to the research —comparing the outcomes of the Facebook groups participants to the control group. After all, the lack of that critical data on black male college students is what launched Watkins' work in the first place.
And why wouldn't her studies and the YBMen project be generating so much attention? Not only does it fill a critical gap in academic research, but also, as Watkins says, the national pulse is proving that the need for such programs is long overdue.
"So much media attention is on black men," she says, "and the intersections of race and class and gender are really coming to light in more ways than one. The implications for what I'm doing speaks to a more targeted effort of these marginalized groups of men who, at the end of the day, really do want more resources directed towards them."
Local research for a local issue
Addressing the social support needs of young black men may be in the national spotlight, but Watkins' research and program are also incredibly relevant to the very campus in which they originated.
"I do think that this kind of thing is something that could work at the University of Michigan," says Noel. "In the wake of #BBUM
, there's still a vacuum, there's a need for a conversation that isn't necessarily about telling the world how we feel, but about talking about it among each other on campus.
"Michigan is a very caustic place to be a black male, from the undergrads all the way to the professors." YBMen, Noel says, is a way to give people the space to rally around, discuss and tackle some of the issues those students face.
Watkins' hopes for the project is for it to both positively affect the lives of students today, and long into their futures.
"I often ask myself about the issues that were plaguing my father, and if someone intervened early enough in his adult life, how could his life have been different?" she says. "I ask, 'How am I influencing this next generation of fathers and partners and community members with the work that I'm doing?'"
Though it's certainly too early to tell for a new project like YBMen, the demand for something of its potential caliber —both nationally and here in Ann Arbor— is palpable.