A High-Profile Suicide Exposes a Confusing Risk Factor
Understanding how hidden suicidal thoughts can be is crucial.
Posted December 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Understanding suicide is difficult because it sometimes involves risk factors that are hidden and not expressed directly.
- Those who live with a suicidal individual may be more likely to observe occasional or recent changes to that person's thinking or mood.
- Discussing suicide with a loved one can begin with using a high-profile suicide as a springboard for conversation.
The recent suicide of dancer, DJ, and television producer Stephen “tWitch” Boss has brought a flood of media attention and a wave of shock and sadness from audiences who felt connected to him as a star of various television shows.
One of the most frequent comments of posters in various online forums relates to him always appearing as a symbolic light of positive energy. Commenters shared that Boss always appeared cheerful and happy in television appearances and dance videos he posted on social media and that no signs of sadness or emotional struggle were visible.
Boss’s suicide sheds light on an important reality of completed suicides: Sometimes there aren’t clear indicators as the individual goes about their daily life at work or in their community. While those who live with the individual may be more likely to observe occasional or recent changes that indicate that something has changed in the individual’s thinking or mood, others may not notice any serious sign of emotional distress.
Many risk factors of suicide are well documented. They include depression, hopelessness about the future, giving away prized possessions, and making statements that suggest they perceive themselves as a burden to others, among others (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Part of what many people struggle to make sense of after a suicide is how their loved one could have believed others would be better off without them.
A few factors emblematize what makes the study of suicide, known as suicidology, and predicting it so difficult. When an individual is suicidal, their thinking is real and valid to them but often illogical or even delusional when viewed through the lens of others. Similarly, the way the suicidal individual communicates is often not linear or clear, meaning that it’s often difficult for those in proximity to the suicidal individual to understand or know how high the risk level may be. For instance, individuals who complete a suicide may not openly state how depressed or overwhelmed they are, and they may not display the extreme social isolation or hopelessness many presume to be automatic correlates of suicide risk.
With respect to Boss’s death, online reactions that reference confusion about how he could appear happy in posted videos in the days leading up to his suicide serve as an important reminder: Appearances are not absolute, all-or-nothing reflections of one’s mental status. Accordingly, an individual can smile, be social, and say they’re doing fine, while privately struggling with thoughts of ending their life. The contradiction begs an important question: Is it feasible that anyone among us, at a moment’s notice, could start the sequence of events that leads to suicide? Because the human brain and the behavior it produces are so complex, it may be possible but is most likely not probable.
In Boss’s case, law enforcement reported that a note was left near where Boss was found, and the note was part of what led authorities to conclude that his death was a suicide (Saad, 2022). It may be that while Boss was able to function to some degree positively and to access a positive mood some of the time (what was apparent in television appearances and social media videos), he struggled with his mood and thinking at other times (as a note may reference). The point is that though signs may not clearly indicate a serious risk for suicide, it may be inaccurate to presume the complete opposite scenario—that suicide has no precedent whatsoever and comes completely out of the blue.
Questions to consider asking those close to you
It can be helpful to consider a few questions as you think about those close to you. Though it may seem strange or even like you're prying to ask certain personal questions, the value of knowing the answers and conveying care and concern should prevail over awkwardness or politesse. Referring to events in real life, whether a high-profile suicide in the news or a known suicide in your community, can be used as a springboard. For example, “I heard about the suicide of [insert person’s name]. What do you think makes someone do something like that?” Consider asking, “What are some of the things that might make a person too afraid or ashamed to tell people that could cause that kind of suicidal thought?” When asking such a question, follow it by sharing, “You know, you or anyone I know could always come to me because I don’t judge.”
If you are the one struggling
If you find yourself struggling with suicidal thoughts, the most important thing you can do is to tell someone. Telling someone what’s going on prevents the issue from feeling like a secret, and secrets can be incredible burdens to bear. In addition to telling at least one person you trust, also reach out to a professional and be honest about what you’re dealing with. You can also always call 911, go to your nearest emergency room for treatment, or utilize the resources below.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Saad, N. (Dec. 16, 2022). The note that Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss left led investigators to rule death a suicide. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 18, 2022, from https://www.latimes/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-12-16/twitch-death-suicide-note-stephen-boss
Suicide prevention: risk and protective factors. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved December 18, 2022, from www.cdc.gov/suicide/factors/index.html