It’s the happiest time of the year — right?

Ashanti Branch. Photograph courtesy of Ever Forward Club.

Not for everyone. Actually, 3 in 5 Americans — more than half — report that the holiday season negatively impacts their mental health, according to a 2021 Sesame report. Though a break from school is supposed to be celebrated by young people, it can be a really stressful time.

Depending on your home situation, being away from your school environment for extended periods of time can do more damage than good. Many students, especially low-income students and students of color, rely on mental health resources provided in school. On top of that, home environments aren’t necessarily affirming places, especially for Black LGBTQ+ students. Or maybe home just means caring for siblings full-time instead of relaxing with friends.

The point is, the holiday season is tough on mental well-being. The Sesame report found that, around the holidays, 60% of Americans reported an increase in anxiety, and 52% feel increased depression. This adds up to 67% of people considering seeking mental health treatment.

So how do we help young people cope during the holiday season — and beyond? To find out, we spoke with Ashanti Branch, the founder and executive director of the Oakland-based Ever Forward Club, a nonprofit that provides young men a safe place to openly share their emotions and build character.

Branch founded the Ever Forward Club in 2004 after working as an engineer and then becoming a teacher. He saw the need for youth to learn how to express their emotions and have a safe space where they could be seen and heard. In the 18 years since, Branch’s work has been featured at SXSW, on CNN’s “This Is Life With Lisa Ling,” in the documentary “The Mask You Live In,” as well as the documentary “American Masculinity.” He is a Fulbright Fellow, a Rotary Fellow, a Stanford d.school Fellow, and a 4-time TedX speaker.

Word In Black: Why do holidays take a toll on our mental health?

Ashanti Branch: The question, for me, is tricky. If you’d asked me, growing up, did it affect my mental health, I would say, “I don’t know.” But here’s what I do know. Now, looking back as an educator: When I had holidays, I knew my mom loved me. I knew we were poor. I knew that the answer to any question or anything we wanted or thought we wanted was always no. So going home for weeks at a time was a break from school — but I loved school. And then also, because I was the oldest, I was responsible for my siblings. What it meant during vacations for me was Ashanti gets to babysit 24 hours a day. For me, vacation wasn’t vacation. Vacation was more work than when I went to school because I had eight hours of a break from my siblings that I could just be me. And I think the challenge that I continue to find is that most times, when educators think that kids are going on vacation, they think the kids are gonna go off to Barbados and come back well-rested — and some come back more exhausted. 

As a teacher, I would give out a packet over the holidays. Most of them would not do it. The four or five kids who were the superstar, academically focused students, they would do it. And then it would create a bigger gap between the students who do well and those who don’t because these students spent a couple of hours doing some mind exercises, and the other ones didn’t. So now the gap between them has gotten even farther. 

Sometimes kids go home to loving, tree-lighted homes and have music playing in the background. Sometimes they go home to war zones. So the holidays, whether it’s a holiday or a war zone, that all depends on what that child has in their life, with the support system they have in their life. And does anybody even notice or ask? 

As an educator, I was more than just a math teacher. It was about building connections with students, and some were going to go home and they were going to be fine. And some we’re gonna go to a place that that extra support was necessary. And most times in education, because teachers are also tired and exhausted and have their own families, they don’t necessarily see those things or maybe even notice to ask. So the mental health part is a byproduct of all the disconnected ways that our community doesn’t support young people as a whole child, even though a lot of schools talk about it.

WIB: We know there are shortages among psychologists and counselors in schools, and then, especially coming back from the holidays, they’re also going to be overwhelmed, both with work and with a lot of appointments with students. What are some ways that students can still get help and address their mental health and make sure that they’re okay, whether it’s when they’re at home for the holidays or until they can get back with the school counselor or school psychologist?

AB: Not being a therapist, I don’t want to give any answers that are therapeutic. So these are my ideas of what I try and support our young people to do. We try to take field trips and see nature — try to go out in the snow, fresh air. We try to do some breathing exercises, like yoga or some body movements. 

So whatever, wherever their status is, it’s like, how can we continue offering ideas for them to do some self-care? When you’re 13- or 14-years-old, what do you really have access to? You have to find ways within the means that are available to you. There’s lots of, sometimes, barriers to entry to those things that are available. You can’t drive, and each person is dependent upon the environment they live in and where they grew up.

But making room and recognizing sometimes we need to ask, “What do I need right now?” Being able to ask those questions to yourself was first a way of naming it. And then, when you name it, be mindful of the resources that are around you.

WIB: What are some signs of mental distress that students can be looking for in their friends and peers during this time? And what can they do about it?

AB: I’m always trying to help people access resources that are within their language skills. For some people, when you say emotional distress, they think that somebody is in crisis. And I think that if you were to ask any of your friends if they’re in emotional distress, a lot of young men will be like, “no.” But if you say, are any of your peers dealing with stuff that they don’t have answers to, they will say yes. What I try to do is just say, is there anything you need right now that you’re not getting? Are there any supports you’re missing in your life? Is there anything that you’re saying that no one’s hearing? Is there anything that you’re not saying that needs to be said? 

Mental health has created such a challenge in our community. I’m a Black man, I live in Oakland, I grew up in the crack epidemic. People will be like, oh, he was fine. He’s crazy, or whatever. They would just downplay it. Because therapy was almost seen as something wrong with you. Everybody who wants to be in the NBA or NFL were out training all day long at the gym, practicing two or three times a day for their body. But no one was doing the training for their minds. People were willing to put stress on their bodies to get better, but they weren’t willing to take the stress from their mind and do something with it to get better, because it wasn’t seen as something you should do.

What we’re trying to help young people see is, let’s soften the word so we can get clear about it. Do you feel stuck in any parts of your life? Do you feel that there’s any areas of your life that are not moving? How do we get to the place where we ask really good questions so that we get really good answers? 

People have put on these emotional masks. They tell people, I’m doing good, I’m cool, I’m fine, even when they’re not because they don’t really think that people are asking. If we can get to a space in communities where we begin to really ask that question, and ask it when people know they need it, then we will stop and listen to them answer. Everyone doesn’t need to know your stuff. But who are the people in your life that you can go talk about what you’re going through?

Putting on that mask helps people hide out. And I think that’s still part of the work that we’re doing is inviting people to share more about that person anonymously, and then with the people you can trust because everyone needs it.

WIB: You started the Million Mask Movement. How does removing your “mask” or recognizing what might be behind others’ apply to this situation?

AB: It’s really a huge contextual piece. The first time I got those young men to open up was in that documentary. I realized that if I could get them to talk about it — without talking about it — it made it all the better. I think that’s how the work began to grow. Because it was like, OK, don’t talk about it, just write it. And then I’m going to take it from you. And we’re going to not know whose it is because there’s no name on it. And then when you get to see the other people in this room are going through the same stuff, hopefully, that will open your mind to like, wait a minute, everybody in here been lying? Because your reality has shifted when you thought that you were the only one going through real stuff. Because everyone had their well-crafted design masks. 

That’s part of our work is, how do we improve the connection, communication — those things? First of all, by recognizing that there’s more to all of us. There’s more to you than people can see by looking at you. In that same way, if there’s more to me, then maybe there’s more to other people. But the mask is protection. I know, we also people that shouldn’t have masks, never, I got a good mask. I’m not here to tell you you shouldn’t have one. There’s one person in your life that you can not have to put on a show with, you have a safe place to be able to talk about what’s going on inside, because when I tell you in our work, and these are all young people, they’re walking around like landmines. 

I think the idea is that we’re supposed to have it all together, we’re not supposed to talk about it, so they can always be cool and have money and have partners and have cars and have stuff and never have any problems. And then we wonder when the explosion happened. All it takes is somebody to step on the wrong shoestring, and we’ve lost our minds. That’s happening over and over again. I’m tired of seeing it. It hurts me to see it. 

I hate to go to a school after they’ve had a crisis. When we talked months ago about doing preventive work, they were like, “Yeah, we don’t need to do that.” And then we get a call after some kid has done something egregious, and they need to protect their image of the school. We want to support, but why didn’t we do the preventive work? Because there’s no pressure for preventive work. There’s no pressure. Pressure is things that are broken right now, that you can see they’re broken. So prevention almost seems like it’s not necessary.

WIB: Do you have any mantras or other words of affirmation or words of wisdom that you share with young people, so they know their feelings are valid and what’s happening inside of them matters, even if they’re the only people in that moment telling themselves that?

AB: First thing is to tell young people to go to that website and make a mask anonymously. Make a mask, and then search for other young people your age in the gallery and watch what you see. Because what I think often happens is they think that they’re the only ones going through what they’re going through. And oftentimes, they’re not. 

A quote that we say is, the longest distance that most people travel is the 18 inches between their head and their heart. But most people get stuck in our heads. We’re inviting people to take a journey from their head to the heart so that we can find ourselves. Your heartbeat was the first thing that let people know you were coming. They didn’t know what you looked like, they didn’t know what hair color you were going to have, your eyes, your height — they knew there was a heartbeat. And people got excited about a heartbeat. 

If we can come back to our hearts and recognize that our hearts are going to tell us, but our heads are going to try and protect us. Sometimes we protect ourselves so much that we don’t even get seen or heard, or felt. And I think that that’s what we need to do is get back to our hearts. That’s the work that we do with young people. What I say to young people all the time is there’s more to you that anybody can see by just looking at you. There’s more than me. So I hope that you will begin allowing yourself to be seen more.