September was National Suicide Prevention Month. In a short while, we also approach the 41st birthday of the late Stephen “tWitch” Boss, a widely beloved dancer and executive producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show whose death by suicide is still hard to grapple with
tWitch, who initially rose to prominence from the dance competition So You Think You Can Dance, captured the hearts of millions by running social media channels that featured sweet dancing videos with his wife and children. These videos would frequently go viral and garner thousands of comments about how his beautiful family inspired positivity, hope, and love.
Word of tWitch’s suicide just shy of Christmas last year left the Internet gutted. To this day, people have struggled to reconcile his long-running, happy-go-lucky social media presence with his heartbreaking departure. In the aftermath of his death, the Twitterverse was teeming with posts trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
The truth is, we’ll likely never know the full context surrounding his death, and for the sake of his family, it’s neither helpful nor appropriate to speculate.
But instead of speculating, what we can do is take a pause. We can take this opportunity to reflect on the larger stakes because tWitch’s cause of death is tragically not a rarity.
For years, experts have been warning of a silently brewing suicide crisis afflicting American men.
According to the CDC, men experience approximately 80 percent of suicides, despite comprising less than half of the U.S. population. Between 1999 and 2018, the male suicide rate jumped by 28 percent. In 2021, the suicide rate saw the greatest surge among 15- to- 24-year-old men, with the rates rising for men in the 25-34, 35-44, and 65-74 age brackets as well. For those identifying as part of the LGBTQ community, the statistics are even more staggering.
What gives? That’s the burning question, and the answer is far from straightforward.
On the one hand, men are especially susceptible to various risk factors for suicide, such as substance use, incarceration, and alcohol abuse. A study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine analyzed data on more than 70,000 male suicides recorded by the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System. The paper found that 60 percent of men who died by suicide did not have known mental health conditions. Rather, characteristics such as “greater access to highly lethal means” seemed to weigh heavily.
On the other hand, we can’t neglect the role of men’s mental health in bringing us to this current predicament, as we’re likely underestimating the real extent to which men are struggling.
This is especially true for young men, who are emerging into adulthood at a time when the pandemic upended the ways youth interact with each other and the world around them.
The loss of traditional means of social connection and the burden of rebuilding community through computer screens had a palpable effect. One survey study conducted during 2020 found that “serious loneliness” was affecting 61 percent of individuals between ages 18 and 25. The prevalence of depression and anxiety also skyrocketed during this period.
Men are not immune to these impacts, and if anything, taboos around men seeking support for mental health concerns can contribute to downward spirals.
When social norms are constructed around hypermasculinity, men can be discouraged from recognizing when they need help and feel ashamed for asking for it. Such stifling distorts our picture of how many men are, in fact, suffering.
As Dr. Michael Miller, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, puts it, “It’s part of the culture for men to tough it out.”
But this culture is broken. And a society that encourages much of its population to bear a heavy load in silence is now reckoning with the cost.
We’re long overdue for not only greater displays of interpersonal empathy towards each other, but also a wider paradigm shift that encourages honest conversations among men about sensitive topics like suicide, depression, and anxiety.
We need more accessible support networks and a better availability of resources to promote well-being in our schools and workplaces. We need increased research on how to reach the most vulnerable men with mental health services. We need to all work collectively to take care of each other.
And we need to do so before it’s too late.
Henna Hundal and Karan Patel are medical students.