This week, America grieved the loss of a special joy-bringer: Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss. As news of his suicide went viral, time moved slower. Black America took a collective and necessary dramatic pause.
tWitch rose to fame on “So You Think You Can Dance,” and was best known as the amiable DJ on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He was a father of three and a role model for many.
Scan the media’s retrospective of tWitch’s life and the consensus is clear: tWitch lit up rooms with his smile. He was generous with his compassion. By all accounts, he was happy.
No death is easy for the living to shoulder. Suicide weighs especially heavy– the unknowns, the ‘if only’s,’ the acute grief. Suicide in the Black community is as heavy as lead. And losing a bright light like tWitch to suicide feels like lead on our hearts.
His death comes at a time when mental health is rising as a major public health emergency in our country. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S., and in 2020 alone, there were approximately 1.2 million suicide attempts. It is a public health concern for all Americans, particularly for Black Americans. The death of George Floyd and the pandemic brought us to our knees. Since 2020, we’ve seen an exponential increase in treatment-seeking behavior in Black Americans and Asians.
We can’t pinpoint one reason for this public health crisis, because there are many: racial trauma and the continued conditioning of racialized stress, generational trauma, healthcare inequities, bias, and systemic barriers, the need for more community programs at schools, recreational centers, and more dedicated to mental health.
And, stigma. For far too long in the Black community, we have lived under a shroud of misbeliefs. Misbeliefs like “Suicide is unique to white people.” Or, “Therapy is not for us.” Some of these misbeliefs are rooted in an unfortunate, albeit understandable mistrust in America’s healthcare systems. Other misbeliefs are ones we’ve passed along from one generation to the next.
When I first started working in mental health, my deep commitment was to dismantle these stigmas, for Black men in particular. My duty was birthed from my own mental health challenges. I experienced an arresting depression. During the depression, I experienced suicidal ideation. As a part of my healing process, I delved into the research on Black mental health. I discovered that suicidal ideation is grossly underreported in the Black community. First, because we don’t understand what suicidal ideation is; and second, because the stigma associated with suicide keeps it in the shadows.
I have always perceived mental health as a public health priority. In public health, we learn to zero in on the most vulnerable populations, which is why I began my work in mental health with a focus on Black men. Since then, the aperture of my mission has widened. At Hurdle Health, our work accounts for the vast needs of other marginalized communities who have lacked access to a model of mental healthcare that honors their race and culture.
tWitch’s death comes at a time when I am working aggressively and feverishly to chart a path forward for my company. That is why this week, we at Hurdle Health have leaned into that heavy pause of grief to remember why it is we do what we do here. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We cannot afford to stay silent when joy and life are solutions that for one reason or another still feel out of reach for beautiful souls like tWitch.
I believe that grief has the ability to change our lives. It is a vulnerable place to be because it can take us in myriad directions. In our pauses of grief for tWitch and his family, we are choosing to love the ones we got while we got ‘em. We are choosing to be uncomfortable, to pose the hard questions to our loved ones–– “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” We are choosing brave empathy.