Daphne C. Watkins considers herself a witness to black men’s pain.

Growing up, she watched her father struggle with depression and turn to unhealthy coping strategies to deal with his inner turmoil. After a successful career as a computer programmer, he ended up retiring because of a physical health concern — an incident that prompted his first visit to a psychotherapist.

Watkins, associate professor of social work, said that moment changed her father’s life.

Using mixed research methods, Watkins now dedicates her scholarship to studying “men, masculinities and mood,” with a specific focus on black men. She’s particularly interested in how men and boys define themselves as men and boys, and how that influences their mental health.

Photo of Daphne Watkins
Daphne Watkins, associate professor of social work, researches how men and boys define themselves as men and boys, and how that influences their mental health. (Photo by Jennifer Patselas)

Watkins said watching a PBS feature while she was in graduate school propelled her to study mental health. On a show featuring a panel of black women, one guest mentioned how black men were becoming “extinct” due to death or developments such as mass incarceration, Watkins recounted.

Astounded by the possibility of this demographic shift, she said she wondered how to make a difference — motivating her to read everything she could about men’s mental health and the experiences of men of color in the United States.

“For me, mental health was the thing people don’t talk about,” Watkins said. “You can’t see it so it doesn’t exist.

“And then more importantly, in communities of color — in particular black communities — there is a huge stigma attached to mental illness. I just wanted to do more work to raise awareness, to normalize conversations about mental health.”

As a scholar with “one foot” in the academy and the other in communities, Watkins created The Young Black Men, Masculinities, and Mental Health Project as one of her research and community engagement initiatives.

Through this online health education and social support program, Watkins’ team uses social media to educate young black men about mental health, healthy definitions of manhood, and the importance of seeking social support.

Partnering with schools and colleges in Michigan and Ohio, Watkins’ team posts content to private Facebook and Instagram groups often related to pop culture topics like movies, music, art and sports.

Each post has an educational angle, and encourages the young men to think about the posts’ implications in regards to mental health, manhood, and social support. The men can also engage with the content by answering questions and posting comments.

Watkins said evaluations of the project indicate that after experiencing the program, participants’ depression scores have decreased, their definitions of masculinities and manhood have become more positive and progressive, and they want to further support their male peers.

“We’ve been doing this for the past six years and when you think about the policing of black men in the country and the killing of black men over the past six years, we’ve been able to address some of those issues in these groups as well,” she said. “So this has been a retreat for many of our participants, a place for them to process the world around them.”

Watkins said she thinks the ways men define masculinity often come from someone else’s definition and not their own.

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She said some black men have told her that just by being a black man, society already has placed some strikes against them. If they were then to be vulnerable or disclose a problem or challenge, that’s one more strike against them as they struggle to succeed.

“It is human to cry when you’re sad. It is human to hurt, to be vulnerable,” Watkins said. “But it’s like we tell boys and men, ‘You cannot be human.’”

Watkins said she hopes she can help to expand definitions of masculinity so that more men feel they can re-evaluate what they have been taught and redefine masculinity for themselves.

“I think men are handed a rulebook just like women,” she said. “I would love to be one of the people who helps rewrite the rules for us all.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The School of Social Work elevator has a window that opens to the SSW courtyard. Whenever I am riding it up to my third-floor office, I cannot help but think about the symbolism of starting from the bottom and rising to the top. I also think about my grandmothers, who had elementary school and middle school educations and who were domestic workers for more privileged families. They are so proud of me and these are the privileges I can enjoy because I was able to stand on their shoulders.

What can’t you live without?

Chocolate chip cookies.

Name your favorite spot on campus?

The Diag.

What inspires you?

Seeing passion and persistence in young scholars.

What are you currently reading?

Every leadership book I can find! Meghan Duffy (a U-M professor of ecology and evolutionary biology) recently gifted me a copy of Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” and I cannot put it down.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My father.

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