The news of Stephen “tWitch” BossLast week’s suicide came as a shock to many fans and other stars alike. How could a celebrity whose life was seemingly filled with so much joy have been struggling inside?
Mental health professionals stress the importance of taking control of one’s emotional well-being, especially in the midst of the holiday season. While the public doesn’t know exactly why or how Boss was struggling, his death represents a stark reality: that black men in particular are used to voicing mental health struggles as a sign of weakness.
“There’s been a unanimous comment 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’s death. “We don’t always think that these societal pressures or systemic problems that tend to affect the majority of a group will still affect that person. Sometimes that smile can 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 also less likely to receive adequate treatment when they do, experts say. This is especially dangerous for black Americans because they live under chronic stress, which experts say humans are 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 a pandemic.
“Especially for black men, there’s a lot of pressure to be less vulnerable, to always show strength, to never show people that you’re okay, because that strength has also been a tool or a skill that a lot of people have had to develop in order to get through very difficult circumstances,” says Brown.
While talking with a trusted friend, spiritual leader, or member of one’s community is helpful, mental health experts note that it is no substitute for working with a licensed professional.
“The barbershop 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 concern that what they say might be shared with others, Calixte notes. But therapy is required to be confidential, except in cases of protecting the patient from self-harm or harm to others.
“No one needs to know but you and your therapist—find a male therapist if that makes you feel more comfortable,” says Brown. “If you’re worried about what it’s going to look like, I think ‘nobody needs to know now’. … It’s really hard to break free from constructs. We all get hit with these expectations about gender, but the truth is that we all have feelings.”
Mental health professionals are noticing a turning tide when it comes to black men’s perceptions of therapy. And representation is vital: both watching characters in entertainment, like Sterling K. Brown’s “This is Us” character, attending therapy as well as seeing therapists in real life who look like their clients are important reminders that therapy is for everyone.
Resources for the holiday season and beyond
The holidays can bring difficult and complex emotions. A 2014 National Mental Health Alliance Survey found that 64% of people with mental illness feel that vacations make their conditions worse.
For some, it may be because it’s the first holiday without a recently deceased loved one, says Calixte. Others may be struggling financially and are unable to buy all the gifts they were hoping for for their family. Or they may be very successful and feel increased pressure to meet or exceed expectations in order to prove themselves. And some may go home to families that don’t celebrate their identity — or are being excluded from family gatherings altogether.
“Winter in general and the holiday season bring a lot of feelings of loneliness for a lot of people,” says Brown.
Being proactive about mental health can be a big help, experts say.
- Google can be a great starting point: Calixte recommends using a search engine to start looking for a “therapist in my area” who deals with whatever issue the potential client is looking to address, such as depression, anxiety or anger issues.
- Group therapy is also a useful option: For those who may be hesitant to meet one-on-one with a therapist, attending a group session can be a helpful introduction, Calixte says.
- Practice hobbies that promote joy and reduce stress: Outside of therapy, Brown suggests trying trauma-informed stress reduction tactics, such as listening to music, meditating, practicing yoga, journaling, or using essential oils to engage the body and senses.
And for those close to someone who may be struggling with their mental health, experts suggest checking in on how their loved ones are feeling, actively listening and following up on how they’re coping.
“We have to keep talking about it,” says Calixte. “We cannot escape ourselves.”
And as Brown says: “We can’t control anyone else’s story, but I really believe that the little things we do: the sympathy we show, the compassion, the acts of kindness — they go a long way.”
If you or someone you know needs support for mental health, suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, call, text or chat:
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988 and 988lifeline.org
Black Line: 800-604-5841 and callblackline.com
Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860 and translifeline.org
Veterans Crisis Line: Call 800-273-8255 and press 1 to speak with someone or send a text message to 838255 to be connected to a VA response. You can also start a confidential chat session online at Veterans Crisis Conversation. veteranscrisisline.net
Contributed by: Alia Dastagir