Sense of Control Over Life Decreases Depression in Some African American Men

New research suggests that African American men can decrease depressive symptoms by increasing their “perceived mastery.” The concept of “perceived mastery” is defined as having a sense of control of one’s own life circumstances. Achieving perceived mastery is qualified with feelings of being able to accomplish anything, whereas feeling pushed around leaves someone with the sense of not having mastered his experiences. Previous research has revealed that the more perceived mastery one has, the better their mental health, especially in African American males. This population is exposed to bigger challenges and discrimination in the workplace and faces inequality of pay. These factors, combined with feeling little or no control over other areas of one’s life, can decrease the mental state of this group of people.

The study, conducted by Daphne Watkins, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and colleagues, looked at the effect of mastery and of discrimination on symptoms of depression in over 1,000 African American men. The data was collected from the national Survey of American Life (NSAL), and examined in three different age groups, young, men to age 35; middle, men to age 54; and late adulthood, men over age 55. The men were given a series of questions relating to everyday instances of discrimination. They were given several responses to choose from, such as being followed in stores or being treated as if they were lying. The findings revealed that all three age groups considered mastery to be important, and their level of mastery was directly related to the level of their positive mental health. Additionally, those with higher perceived mastery were more insulated from experiencing depressive symptoms. The researchers commented on another significant finding, “Compared to African American men in the young and late adult groups, discrimination remained a statistically significant predictor of depressive symptoms for men in the middle group once mastery was included.”

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Arlene McLarty

    Arlene McLarty

    June 2nd, 2011 at 2:17 AM

    I would imagine that perceived mastery over your life would apply to everyone with depression when it comes to making you feel better, not only African American men.

    They need another study to test that theory too.

  • Jade Logan

    Jade Logan

    June 2nd, 2011 at 4:05 AM

    “Watkins said if they get help in the form of early prevention and successful intervention when they are young, adults can overcome social and emotional obstacles later in life.”

    It would have been nice if she hadn’t been so vague there. What is the action required for such early prevention and successful intervention? Her lips were sealed on that.

  • gamecockfan96


    June 2nd, 2011 at 4:18 AM

    Well don’t you think that this is the case for anyone? Feeling like you have some control over your own life is enough to give anyone a spark.
    When you get to the point that you feel like there is someone else in control, of everything that you do, then you feel like you are a slave to them and not to your own self.

  • irvin


    June 2nd, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    being in control of things in your life means you have the power to make things happen and that you can steer them anyhow you like.this feeling is like no other because this is like being in the driver’s seat and when you’re there you can really get ahead and go places!

  • Anita Chance

    Anita Chance

    June 3rd, 2011 at 4:37 AM

    As a black female I see too many men that I run into on a daily basis who feel like they have lost that control due to life circumstances that they feel are beyond their control. This is all part of the vicious cycle that so many in the African American population have had to deal with over the years and have had a difficult time overcoming. Certainly we know that the past can influence the future, but these are men with no drive, no ambition, constantly falling behind while black women are making huge strides. We have to get out of that mindset that there is nothing that can be done to overcome our situations because that is so far from the truth. The truth is that it is time for all of us to step up and take those first steps forward. There is no longer anything holding you back but yourself.

  • Alan M.

    Alan M.

    June 3rd, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    Let’s see what control of life generally means-A good family,A good house.A good car,A good and well paying job.

    And if these things are present not too many people would have major issues or thereby depression. Not just African Americans but this is true for everyone.

  • Shemar


    June 4th, 2011 at 4:45 AM

    Well doesn’t having a sense of control over your own life make you feel good too? Yes I think so.

  • Daphne Watkins

    Daphne Watkins

    June 21st, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    Hello everyone-

    I just so happened to stumble across this website and I was VERY happy to see such provocative responses from you all in response to my recent study. I think you all raise excellent points. For example, Arlene, gamecockfan, Alan, and Shemar all raise excellent points about how feeling in control doesn’t just apply to African American men.

    Yes, studies have shown that a sense of mastery and feeling “in control” does not reduce the likelihood of poor mental health for African American men only, but rather it prevents poor mental health in men and women of other racial and ethnic groups as well. Unfortunately, we find that mental health professionals are sometimes challenged with how to approach therapy and behavioral interventions with African American men. Also, previous research tends to group all African American men (such as those aged 18 and those aged 80) all in the same group making it difficult to target interventions and treatment for certain groups of African American men. I decided to conduct the above study because of this reason. There are tons of targeted research studies out there, but not many that focus on African American men solely. So the purpose of this study was not to exclude others, it was simply to discuss the mental health and well-being of an under-served group of men.

    Jade’s point is also well taken. Unfortunately, space issues in journals prevent researchers such as myself from providing as many details as we would like to provide on specific programmatic efforts. But I’d be happy to provide a couple of those details here. For example, our research has found that programs aimed at positive black youth development and those that focus on gender and racial identity can have positive mental health effects later in life. An example of this could be positive relationships fostered through programs like Big Brother-Big Sisters. Also, positive familial and social support/kinship networks could achieve the same benefits. Simply put, clear and open discussions about gender norms and racial identity can result in positive mental health outcomes for African American men.

    I agree with irvin’s point whole-heartedly and really appreciate Anita’s personal accounts. You all are so gracious to provide your opinions and life experiences here and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it. I will definitely take your thoughts into consideration as we progress to and through future studies.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on