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By Caroline Fryar

Alumna Double Major in Classics and German

Last week, the Sonja Haynes Stone Center hosted a talk by Dr. Wizdom Powell, Associate Professor of Health Behavior at UNC Gillings School of Public Health, Director of UNC’s Men’s Health Research Lab, and Spring 2016 Faculty Fellow at UNC’s Institute for African-American Research. Dr. Powell spoke about her current work, a Durham-based project called MANHOODS, that investigates the importance of neighborhoods for African-American men in emerging adulthood. The title of her talk was They Can’t Breathe: Why Neighborhoods Matter for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Outcomes Among Emerging Adult African American Men.

Countering the narrative that black men are missing from public life, Dr. Powell argued that they have been stolen by chronic exposure to racism, which manifests itself in many forms. They haven’t only been stolen by disproportionate incarceration and police violence (although the talk’s title intentionally echoes the last words of Eric Garner). Mental health problems, along with substance abuse and its significant comorbidities (heart disease, respiratory disease, accidents) also steal the lives of African-American men through premature death.

This theft begins in adolescence–hence the focus on emerging adulthood. This is a time of intense neurological development, when individuals work to forge their personalities and claim their identities–especially gender identities. Dr. Powell drew on her past research to explain the effects of chronic, stressful exposure to racism during emerging adulthood: physically, through a process of embodiment, it can result in higher levels of stress and androgenic hormones in young black men. Behaviorally, certain adaptations to the stresses of racism–suppressing emotions as a way of maintaining safety, for example–can become part of the way masculinity is performed. The male gender norm of affect modulation (“boys don’t cry”) means both that young black men often bear the burdens of unexpressed grief and trauma, or that, when they do grieve or express their distress, their feelings are less likely to be honored, contributing to a sense of invisibility. These burdens often play out as dangerous health behaviors. She also emphasized that masculinity isn’t who men are, but what they do, and, as a set of behaviors and actions, can be changed through public health interventions.

Dr. Powell’s current research seeks to understand the ecological context of all this–the setting where these stresses, responses, and health behaviors play out in the lives of emerging adult African-American men. Durham neighborhoods are observed systematically and in great detail using the NIfETy method, a seven-day assessment of stressors and health-behavioral responses is performed via smartphone app, and, as a beneficial health intervention, study participants are guided towards local resources for support.

The ultimate health intervention, of course, is not to change study participants’ behaviors, but to change social and public policies. Dr. Powell lives this political engagement out: she is the co-chair of the Health Committee for My Brother’s Keeper in Durham, served as the chair of the APA’s working group on Health Disparities in Boys and Men, and was appointed in 2011-2012 to be a White House Fellow, serving as a Special Advisor on military mental health policies to Secretary Leon Panetta. Speaking to her audience, she said that she loved the work she did in research, but that, “this here”–speaking to and engaging with the public–“this is my spirit work.”

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