Why is it so difficult to address the death of a witch?
Content warning: This article deals with depression and suicide.
A few days ago, I came across a post about Stephen “tWitch” Boss on social media. I didn’t stop to read it. It was early in the morning, I was getting ready for work, and I was seeing my first patient in less than ten minutes. So I kept scrolling, thru the reels, workout challenges, and filtered vacation selfies. But as I kept scrolling, I saw him there again. This time, on the mental health page, and that’s where the truth begins to sink in. I still haven’t stopped to read the full commentary; I didn’t have to (or maybe I didn’t want to). So I put my phone down, finished the rest of my morning protein shake, and tried to get on with my day.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
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I just saw him dancing with his wife on Instagram. He has a beautiful family. He’s always smiling. He is only 40 years old, almost the same age as me.
As news of his death spread, and especially about how the magician died, I noticed that psychiatrists and other mental health experts did their best to talk about the thing no one wanted to talk about — suicide. But the question most people have been thinking about is: How could this happen to someone who seemed so happy? Or as his old boss, Ellen DeGeneres, put it, someone who was “pure love and light.” This is exactly why it is so important to create an environment where talking about mental health is not only normal, but expected.
Psychiatrists like myself are trained to identify risk factors for suicide. These conditions include being diagnosed with a mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder, dealing with addiction, being in a toxic relationship, or having a serious medical condition such as cancer. The truth is, you don’t have to fall into any of these categories to be at risk of suicide, and just being born a man automatically puts men into this category, too. Men die by suicide three to four times as often as women, and suicide attempts are increasing, especially among black men.
As a black man who knows both sides of depression—I’ve struggled with it and treated it—I personally understand how hard it is for black men to find help. Perhaps one of the biggest barriers is that some men are reluctant to seek help from a mental health professional who is not like them. Makes sense. Guys want to talk to someone who really understands them. But only about 4 percent of psychologists and 2 percent of psychiatrists in the United States are black, so it can be tough.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that the person you’re talking to doesn’t have to look like you in order to help you. Therapists are trained to be curious, ask questions, and listen with a non-judgmental ear no matter what you look like or what they look like.
However, there is a broader role for all of us when it comes to encouraging productive conversations about mental health, especially when someone we thought had it all together dies by suicide. It is important that we have these conversations in a compassionate and intelligent way.
Here’s how to talk about suicide for better mental health:
When we learn of a suicide, whether it’s the death of a friend or a celebrity like tWitch, we have to be careful about how we talk about it. This is because the infection effect is real. This means that some people may be tempted to mimic suicidal behavior that they become aware of through word of mouth or in the media. One of the things you can do to stop the spread is to ask people close to you how they feel about tWitch. Start the conversation, and if someone tells you they’re having really dark thoughts, encourage them to see a professional like a therapist or psychiatrist. Now may be a good time to check in on people you know who may be suffering from depression or another mental illness; A text or phone call goes a long way.
Focus on prevention
Speaking of suicides, skip the part about how they died. It is not beneficial and does not promote mental health. Instead, think of the person’s life with fond memories, stories, or moments of joy. But it is important to do so in a way that always encourages suicide prevention. If you make a post on social media, try adding a link to the suicide prevention hotline or hashtag 988 (the number for the new mental health crisis hotline). If you are telling a story about someone you know who died by suicide, end it by normalizing and encouraging treatment. This can provide a much-needed lifeline to people you never knew were struggling with their mental health.
Learn the signs
Suicide can be hard to predict — and that includes psychiatrists like myself. Often, even close friends and family don’t expect it. Some people with depression are good at hiding it. They go to work smiling and seem happy. But there are usually subtle signs worth paying attention to. If someone you know talks about death more often, spends more time alone, gives away their prized possessions, or stops talking about checking on them in the future. Invite them to lunch, or ask how they are doing. (Here’s more about what to know if you or someone else has suicidal thoughts.) Recognizing the subtle signs may ultimately save a person’s life.
Recognizing suicide is hard, and talking about it is hard, too. But if we all do our part, we can turn tragedy into an opportunity to prevent future suicides.
If you have suicidal thoughts, call 988 to speak to a trained professional. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Gregory Scott Brown is a board-certified psychiatrist and Men’s Health Consultant. He is an affiliate faculty member at the University of Texas Dell School of Medicine and an author The Self-Healing Mind: An essential five-step practice for overcoming anxiety and depression and revitalizing your life.
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