Career Counseling With Black Men: Applying Principles of Existential Psychotherapy.

Author:Bell, Tyronn J.

Counselors may benefit from applying principles of existential psychotherapy to career counseling with Black men. Existential psychotherapy asserts that there are 4 issues that all people experience: death, freedom, isolation, and meaning. The life experiences of Black men, including difficulty with their careers, suggest that they may struggle with these existential concerns, particularly finding meaning in their lives. Because work and issues in other domains of life (e.g., family, community) often intersect, an existentially based career counseling approach may prove useful. An overview of existential psychotherapy is presented, followed by a discussion of its applicability to career counseling with Black men. In addition to suggestions for career counselors, recommendations for training and professional development are offered.

Keywords: Black men, career counseling, existential psychotherapy


The purpose of this article is to discuss the applicability of existential psychotherapy (May & Yalom, 2005) to career counseling with Black men. First, issues in the career development of Black men are described. Then, an overview of existential psychotherapy is presented, followed by suggestions for incorporating existential principles in career counseling. A case study is then used to demonstrate how to apply existential principles to career counseling with Black men. The article concludes with some final recommendations for counselors, as well as recommendations for training and professional development.

Career Issues for Black Men

For Black men, a number of relevant issues warrant attention from career counselors. In terms of basic education or career preparedness, Black men are not achieving the same level of success as their White counterparts. For example, the high school graduation rate for Black men is approximately 59%, a 21% discrepancy from the 80% graduation rate for White men (Schott Foundation for Public Education, 2015). Black men also have a lower percentage of degree completion at the college level. According to S. R. Harper (2012), 33.3% of Black men completed degrees in public colleges and universities within 6 years compared with 48.1% of the general student population. The differential college completion rates may be due to Black men being inadequately prepared for college (Cuyjet, 1997).

In addition to education and career preparedness, employment for Black men proves troubling. Black men have a slightly lower percentage of employment than do Black women, the only ethnic group for whom this gender pattern is true (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). In 2015, the unemployment rate for Black men was more than double the rate of their White counterparts (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). Wilson (2008) pointed out that official unemployment statistics only account for those individuals who are actively seeking employment. In other words, the statistics do not reflect the large numbers of Black men who have withdrawn from the job market. In terms of earnings, Black men earned only 73% of the hourly earnings of White men in 2015; unfortunately, this is the same as it was in 1980 (Patten, 2016). Thus, even employed Black men may be at a disadvantage because of their lower earning potential. They may find it difficult to pay their bills and often must take on a second job to compensate for the fact that they earn less than do White men.

Attitudes about Black men also can have an impact on their success in school and employment settings. Teachers may hold negative attitudes about their Black male students and often have lower expectations for Black students than for White students, thereby affecting Black students' performance (Strayhorn, 2008). C. D. Johnson and Eby (2011) noted that Black men are stereotyped in a more distinct and negative manner compared with the broader Black population. Similarly, P. D. Johnson (2006) noted that Black men are regarded as lacking intelligence, addicted to drugs, and not suitable for employment, among other negative descriptors. It seems reasonable to conclude that these stereotypes could impede the career success of Black men if employers believe the stereotypes or if Black men have internalized the stereotypes. Black men's own attitudes about education may be a factor in their success. The cool-pose culture (Majors & Billson, 1992), in which education is devalued in favor of hanging out on the streets with friends, using drugs, and the like, negatively affects educational success for Black men, which in turn makes securing employment more difficult.

Perhaps most alarming, as of 2010, Black men were more than six times as likely as White men to be incarcerated (Drake, 2013). It is clear that mass incarceration of Black men is a complex issue, of which a full discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, the relationship between incarceration and work is significant, as Wilson (2008) noted that Black men's high level of incarceration relates to their high rates of joblessness. Difficulty in the labor market, such as not securing employment, may in turn lead to criminal activities in order to make money, and such activities often result in incarceration (Wilson, 2008). In addition, incarceration would significantly interrupt the career process and may be a significant barrier to career success, as employers may be hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record. In fact, more and more employers are using criminal background checks to determine who may be suitable employees (Pager, 2008). The widespread incarceration of Black men may also strengthen the public's perception that criminal behavior and being a Black male are correlated (Pager, 2008). With this perception extending to Black men in general, even those without a criminal record may be viewed negatively bv potential employers.

Wilson (2008) argued that in addition to turning to criminal activity, Black men may experience a sense of discouragement and futility because of their struggles in attaining employment. Moreover, Cohen (2003) articulated a model of career decision making based on existential theory and argued that career choice is a major life decision that leads to existential angst. The ideas of both Wilson and Cohen support the notion that work can provide a sense of identity, direction, and meaning for people (Leong, Hartung, & Pearce, 2014). According to Dik, Duffy, and Eldrige (2009), "work may be one of the most important domains in life from which to extract meaning, given the sheer amount of time that most adults spend working" (p. 628). As further evidence of the importance of work, a meta-analysis across 26 countries conducted by Paul and Moser (2009) found a significant difference between employed and unemployed individuals on several mental health indicators, including subjective well-being and self-esteem. They even found evidence for a causal relationship between lack of work and distress. This finding is consistent with the long-held notion that work is a central domain in people's lives. It is interesting to consider that although many individuals complain about having to work, the absence of work is linked to substantial mental health issues (Paul & Moser, 2009). Traditional gender roles dictating that men should work and be the primary income earner (Corrigall & Konrad, 2007) could add to the pressure that Black men feel if they are not working.

Existential Concerns for Black Men

Without work, then, people may experience difficulty at an existential level in the search for meaning and purpose. May and Yalom (2005) discussed the importance of meaning as essential to human life and values formation. Values, of course, are often assessed in relation to person-occupation fit (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2002). For Black men, work may not be the only source of existential struggles. Other life experiences that negatively affect their psychological well-being may contribute to their experiencing a lack of meaning. For example, in discussing the overall dehumanization of Black men, P. D. Johnson (2006) noted, "There is no question that racism and other forms of oppression have exacted a tremendous price for some African American men as they strive to realize their human potential" (p. 190). Similarly, Smith (2004, 2008a, 2008b) has written about the stress of racism that Black men and other ethnic minorities experience and that over time can result in racial battle fatigue. Racial battle fatigue manifests in psychological, physiological, and behavioral symptoms. According to Smith, Hung, and Franklin (2011), racial battle fatigue causes a shifting of one's resources from positive aspects of life to deal with chronic racism. Smith et al. highlighted that this shifting of resources occurs while one pursues a college education to increase one's career preparedness.

In the book, Motiva ting Black Males to Achieve in School and Life, Kafele (2009) discussed three crises--community, family, and self--that may affect Black men and lead to difficulty in school. According to Kafele, the community crisis (e.g., adults in the neighborhood not holding others' children accountable for bad behavior) and family crisis (e.g., lack of male role models) of Blacks lead to self-crisis, which may be manifested by lack of self-respect, self-discipline, and self-actualization. These crises may lead to difficulty beyond the school setting to life in general. The self-crisis is consistent with someone struggling to find direction and meaning. Individuals struggling existentially may experience difficulty in certain facets of the career decision-making process. For example, Borgen and Maglio (2007) found that discouragement, anxiety about how to proceed, depression, and suicidal thoughts were some of the negative factors affecting clients who were trying to implement action plans they worked on in career and employment counseling. It seems reasonable to suggest that these...

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