“[Many] men reach a certain age and say, ‘I ain’t never going to the doctor,’” says New Orleans-based Eric Griggs, MD, a community medicine and wellness doctor and the health and wellness chair for 100 Black Men of America (100blackmen.org), an organization that provides mentoring and development opportunities to African Americans. “But the 30s kick in, testosterone drops, genetics kick in, prehypertension, pre-diabetic, BMI is up,” so doctor visits become more necessary. But men still hesitate to go.
One of the goals of 100 Black Men is to chisel away the stigma around men’s health. Men are less likely than women to seek treatment for, or even mention, mental or physical health issues.
“It’s a machismo thing,” Griggs says. “The harder we work, the more valuable we see ourselves. It’s no surprise women live an average of seven years longer than men. When I give these talks to men, I start out with, ‘Have you started to pick out your wife’s next husband?’”
Vulnerability is vital
Griggs uses humor, connection, and trust to have these important conversations with men.
During a recent presentation to a group of men, Griggs asked, “Has anyone ever had their soldier just fall down in the middle of the fight?”—before pausing to let the audience process the erectile dysfunction analogy.
Only a few men responded, until Griggs put his own hand in the air, and then, “every hand in the room went up,” he shares.
Griggs places great emphasis on the power of men being vulnerable, which is why his example resonated with his audience: he allowed himself to be one of them.
“There’s a distrust of doctors for Black people that goes back centuries, and then you don’t see any [doctors] who look like you, or who can understand your experience,” he shares. “If you’re talking about your health, where you could die, it’s really scary walking down that path following a stranger.”
Even when BIPOC men do push through the stigma and lack of providers who share their experiences, they often face further barriers.
One man’s story
Isiah Lineberry grew up with what he described as an athlete’s mindset: to “suck it up” when you got hurt. “I learned to persevere through pain,” he shares.
But when back pain first sent him to the emergency room in 2012, his subsequent experiences with physicians have left him suspicious and hurt.
He recalls, “The exam took place and the physician went behind the curtains and said to the nurse, ‘I don’t believe this guy at all. I’m going to change the diagnosis and indicate I don’t believe he has an injury.’” Lineberry filed a formal complaint, but nothing changed.
In 2015, Lineberry had a heart stent procedure and was treated with statins (drugs that reduce fats or triglycerides in the blood) without permission or consultation with his family. This triggered gout, causing pain that worsened over the years.
When Lineberry lost use of his hands, he received one cortisone shot and then was denied further pain medication without explanation other than “there’s nothing more we can do.” Left to self-medicate, his overreliance on over-the-counter painkillers contributed to severe kidney damage.
By 2021, after years of pain, Lineberry was again diagnosed with gout, with the addition of Sjogren’s syndrome and inflammatory arthritis, without a definitive diagnosis for his chronic stiffness and pain. However, in March 2022, a patient-centered physician, surprised by the lack of concern shown by other physicians for Lineberry’s pain, prescribed long-term medication that has almost entirely eliminated his pain and stiffness from suspected lupus. The physician was a person of color.
There’s no question, Lineberry says, that his pain was minimized. After learning more about historical patterns of bias and unequal medical treatment, and realizing that all of his negative experiences were with white physicians, Lineberry believes that as an African American man, his race was a major reason why.
“I’m always cautious, because I can never tell how a physician will respond,” Lineberry says. “There’s an undercurrent of, ‘I hope that the doc isn’t dismissive or trying to belittle me.’ Every new clinician visit, that’s always in the back of my mind. It’s real.”
Paying it forward
Recently, Lineberry came out of retirement, having formerly worked in the areas of homelessness prevention, rural health, and more, to work as CEO of Harrisburg Family Health Care, a provider that sees uninsured and underinsured individuals without any cost to them. “We’re providing care to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it,” Lineberry says. “It was my adverse experiences, in part, that led me here, where we treat patients with dignity and respect.”
Griggs uses the acronym “MEHE” to represent 100 Black Men of America’s core principles: Mentorship, Education, Health and Wellness, and Financial Empowerment. That acronym paints a picture of one man passing these virtues onto someone else, who in turn will do the same. Lineberry and Griggs are devoted to living out that standard.
“I like to joke,” Griggs says. “Men like to joke about their health. We can still have the jokes, but it’s time to have them with the solutions.”