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Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss’ death and Black men’s mental health during the holidays

The news of Stephen “tWitch” Boss’s suicide last week came as a shock for countless fans and fellow stars alike. How could a celebrity whose life was seemingly filled with so much joy have been struggling internally?

Mental health professionals highlight the importance of checking in on one’s emotional well-being, especially amid the holiday season. While the public does not know exactly why or how Boss was struggling, his death represents a sobering reality: that Black men in particular have been taught expressing mental health struggles is a sign of weakness.

“There has been this commentary that’s unanimous about how (Boss) embodied love and joy, but you can’t always assume that everyone is OK,” Moe Ari Brown, a marriage and family therapist, says of Boss’ death. “We don’t always think that these societal pressures or the systemic problems that tend to impact the majority of a group are still going to impact that person. Sometimes that smile might be a mask for pain.”

The importance of addressing mental health issues

In general, Black Americans are less likely to seek formal medical care and are also less likely to receive adequate treatment when they do, experts say. This is particularly dangerous for Black Americans because they are living under chronic stress, which experts say humans were not designed to do long term.

According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can result from factors such as poverty, family dysfunction or traumatic early childhood experiences. It can lead to despair and hopelessness. Chronic stress in Black communities can include everything from microaggressions to police brutality to working on the front lines during the pandemic.

“In particular for Black men, there’s a lot of pressure to be less vulnerable, to always show strength, to never show people that things are getting to you, because that strength has also been a tool or a skill that many people have had to develop in order to make it through very difficult circumstances,” Brown says

While talking to a trusted friend, spiritual leader or member of one’s community is beneficial, mental health experts note that it isn’t a replacement for working with a licensed professional.

“The barbershop clergy is normally the de facto therapist, but you’re not going to be able to talk about everything,” says Benjamin Calixte, co-founder of Therapy for Black Men.

Sometimes a reluctance to seek professional help can also stem from worrying that what they say may be shared with others, Calixte notes. But therapy is required to be confidential, except in cases of protecting a patient from self-harm or from hurting others.

“Nobody has to know but you and your therapist — find a man therapist if that makes you feel more comfortable,” Brown says. “If you’re worried about how it will look, I’m like ‘no one has to know right now.’ … It’s really hard to break free from constructs. We all get hit with these expectations around gender, but the truth is we all have feelings.”

Mental health professionals are noticing a tide turning when it comes to Black men’s perceptions of therapy. And representation is vital: Both seeing characters in entertainment, such as Sterling K. Brown’s character “This is Us,” attending therapy as well as seeing real-life therapists who look like their clients are important reminders that therapy is for everyone.

Resources for the holiday season and beyond

The holiday season can bring about difficult and complex emotions. A 2014 National Alliance on Mental Health survey found that 64% of people with mental illnesses feel the holidays exacerbate their conditions.

For some, it may be because it’s the first holiday without a recently deceased loved one, Calixte says. Others may be struggling financially and aren’t able to buy all the gifts they hoped to for their family. Or they may be very successful and feel added pressure to meet or exceed expectations in order to prove themselves. And some may be going home to families who don’t celebrate their identities – or are getting excluded from family gatherings altogether.

“The winter in general and holiday season bring up a lot of feelings of loneliness for so many people,” Brown says.

Being proactive about mental health can be an enormous help, experts say.

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