The moment Christopher LeMark heard about the death of Stephen “tWitch” Boss, he knew he wanted to do something to honor his life. Boss, the dancer who first enchanted audiences on So You Think You Can Dance back in 2008 and later became a mainstay on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, had died by suicide at the age of 40.
“In that moment, I was instantly sad for him because I know what it’s like to feel as though you don’t have any other choice and you’re really, really hurting,” says LeMark, a three-time suicide attempt survivor and founder of Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health. “But I always had something to hold on to, and I just felt sad for him that he didn’t have something to hold on to.”
A 2021 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that suicide attempts among young Black men were up nearly 80% compared with other races and ethnicities, a statistic that is both disappointing and unsurprising to LeMark.
“There’s so much pressure because we live in a society where you’re only as good as what you have or what you do, and when you don’t have and you’re not doing, you don’t have a certain level of social or financial capital. You are deemed insignificant, and that’s hard,” he says. “As men, we really do feel like we’re not worth anything if you don’t have or you’re not doing. It’s societal pressure, family pressure, or maybe your own pressure.”
In response to the news about tWitch, LeMark decided to host a conversation for the community at his coffee shop in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.
“One of our values is offering help in real time and trying to meet people where they are,” he says. “And we had a packed house. It was a beautiful feeling. People were talking about their own stuff, and that’s what it was all about—trying to honor tWitch with conversation and giving people the room to let out their confusion, frustration, and their own fears in real time.”
Being a ‘strong Black man’
For John Pendleton, founder and creative director of Planks & Pistils design studio in Chicago, tWitch’s death hit close to home.
“It was like damn, not again,” says Pendleton, who originally hails from Alabama, tWitch’s home state. “This is so tough, especially when it’s someone who seems so happy and joyful and creative…I know the struggles of just having creativity be your livelihood, and it feels so hard to process the hard things.”
While mental health and therapy are largely taboo topics in the Black community, they are even rarer among Black men, which is why Pendleton is vocal about his experiences both on social media and in real life.
“You see a lot on social media about, ‘I’m done being a strong Black woman, and embracing softness and luxury,’ and I think that’s really great,” says Pendleton. “But with men, I feel like there’s not even an equivalent. There’s no such thing as the ‘strong Black man’ stereotype, because that’s the default…If I want to be a man, period, I’ve got to be strong. If I want to be a Black man, then I’ve got to really, really be strong.
“A lot of men have this understanding that I have to be strong and therapy is an admittance that you have weaknesses,” he continues. “Therapy is a place to be soft, and that is a type of strength.”
Removing the stigma
Keanu Jackson, a Brooklyn-based therapist, hosts regular virtual support groups for Black men in an effort to normalize mental health.
“Mental health stigma is huge, but in the Black community especially we have a lot of work to do,” he says. “In a lot of cases, what ends up happening is that folks like to shift blame towards the folks who are experiencing emotional stressors or some sort of suffering.
“Whenever the subject of suicide comes up, people are quick to throw up a hotline, but we also need to talk about preventative measures,” Jackson continues. “Let’s talk about what is happening before a person is pushed to the point where they feel like that is their only option.”
Instead, they suggest looking toward the larger structural issues, such as a failed health care system, and the racial inequities that have created a higher demand for Black therapists, who are already disproportionately underrepresented in their field and facing bias and racism of their own.
“For a lot of Black men, there’s this unspoken expectation for us to shove our emotions down and almost be emotionless as a representative of strength,” says Jackson. “To be strong is to be unmoving, and it’s all of our responsibilities to try to adjust that messaging and also understand that it takes time for folks to unlearn that for themselves.”
Moving forward, he recommends holding space for grace and patience with each other, as well as accountability when it comes to mental health in the Black community.
“Through that accountability and that grace, there can be this sweet spot that shows Black men, ‘You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to have all the answers and be working all the time. You can take some time to not do anything.’ It’s about meeting people where they are.”
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