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Local support group meets to normalize mental health upkeep

 An older Black man speaks animatedly in the foreground as another Black male listens in the background.
Ashley Kang
Willie Booker shares his story with the other BIPOC Support Group members during the May 24 session held at the South Side Innovation Center. Tim Kirkland listens in the background.

A tissue box is always prominently placed in the room when members of the BIPOC Support Group meet. But during the fourth monthly meeting, there was far more laughter in the room than tears.  

Since February, the group, primarily serving Syracuse’s Black community and other people of color, has gathered to help members recover from the trauma of the pandemic. Discussions are moderated by a licensed social worker to help participants normalize the importance of mental health. 

Willie Booker has attended twice and says it’s already helped him process emotions he’s blocked out for too long.

"I feel good. I really do,” he said about attending. "Expressing all the ... tragedies in my life, just peeling back the layers. In conclusion, it was good. To speak outward, it's hard to put into words that feeling that I left with.” 

Booker credits his daughter with recommending therapy. The two became closer after his wife died, but he says, feelings of grief didn’t bubble over until three years ago when the pandemic hit and he retired.  

Avoiding such feelings is how many cope says Dr. Georges Benjamin, who leads the American Public Health Association. He says that especially applies to men. 

“It’s often men who feel that, you know, we absolutely cannot show grief,” Benjamin said. “That can become very disabling. If you feel that way and therefore you are unable to really engage in the grief process because you see that grief processes not being a normal process. And what hopefully these support groups are telling people is that, yeah, it is a normal process.” 

The group will continue to meet monthly, with the next meeting set for June 14. In the fall, organizer Gerald Seals, who runs the mental health services Baby B.A.C.K. Inc., says he hopes to add guest speakers and is looking into launching a public service campaign, pushing for the need to address mental health in the Black community.  

Ashley Kang is a content producer for WAER 88.3 FM under Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. She supports the station with community-driven story ideas; planning of the monthly public affairs show; Syracuse Speak; and the launch of an education beat.