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On Brody Stevens And Why So Many Men Are Dying By Suicide

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Brody Stevens And The Conundrum Of White, Male Suicides
Self, Heartbreak

Why is the suicide rate of white men so high?

A week or so ago, social media reports started trickling in that comedian Brody Stevens had died. The gut punch was that the 48-year old actor died by an apparent suicide.  

You'd likely have to be either into the comedy scene or listen to a lot of podcasts to really have an idea who Stevens was (he once toured with Dave Chappelle), but you probably would recognize his face from the first two Hangover films.

Stevens had a uniquely nasal voice — sharp enough to cut diamonds — and was a generally odd-ball character in a sea of comedic odd-balls. He had a close friendship — at least at one point — with other noted oddball Zach Galifianakis.

Stevens' catchphrase "Enjoy It" (also the subtitle of his TV show Brody Steven: Enjoy It) seemed to embody an outward positivity that belied his obvious struggles. Anyone who has seen episodes of the aforementioned show wouldn't have a hard time seeing a guy trying spectacularly hard to outrun his own self-sabotage. 

Here come the demons.

Per his own admission and periodic social media conflagrations, Stevens struggled with emotional health issues and seemed to periodically go off medication. I felt a particular kinship to Stevens in our love of baseball and maybe our regret over not quite being as successful as we could have been. He was substantially more successful than I was — of course, he pitched at Arizona State University — a perennial college baseball juggernaut.

I, on the other hand, was cut from the baseball club while attending Furman University and have been kicking myself for 20-something years over everything from being a late-bloomer to deciding I'd rather hang out with my friends than be a bullpen catcher (as the coach graciously offered) while my body matured.

Also, given how difficult it is to make it in "Hollywood," it would be impossible not to call Stevens a pretty big success. As an apirational actor and improvisor, I'd love to be half as successful as he was. It's a character flaw that I spend as much mental energy as I do looking up at more successful friends and colleagues.

The sad and lonely clown cliché is beyond tired, but for some reason keeps on proving true. After this loss, it bears wondering aloud why there isn't a better way to help the people who really need it  — despite their defense mechanisms. 

The cycle of "I'm fine" plus list of positive things followed by self-deprecating joke has to be frustrating and confusing for those trying to help. 

It's really hard to articulate this but it's very, very easy to think about climbing in a hole and covering it with dirt when you're lonely.Being alone isn't the problem (though most suicides do occur while solitary) choosing isolation leads to internal monologues about the more or less meaninglessness of existence and what a pain in the ass most things are.

Surrounding ourselves with decent people - which also be pretty damn lonely - at least forces our brains to listen to what's being said and/or come up with a good way to enter the conversation or be helpful in some other way. 

This is the intersection of weltschmerz and anhedonia. (Thank you, German philosophy.) The former (weltschmerz - literally "world pain") is essentially ennui's cousin who thinks ennui is a little too glib. The latter, anhedonia, is the inability to experience pleasure. Even when we're busy doing something we should presumably like, thoughts of "what's the point?" and "when will this be over?" create the kind of echo that really can't be properly muffled.

This is at the heart of some forms of the catch-all term depression. It masquerades as level-headed pragmatism but is, in fact, the opposite. It's the great nothingness swallowing Fantasia into its inky void. And, like most things, it really doesn't make a lot of sense in the cold, sober light of day. 

RELATED: The Unexpected Reason Some People Are 4 Times More Likely To Attempt Suicide

The question we keep asking with suicide rates and the deaths of relatively healthy and well-off people (who are sometimes straight, white, American dudes) keeps on being "why?" "Why are so many people who seem to have a lot going for them - or with fantastic potential - dying by suicide?

However, we can't possibly even guess what's going on behind closed doors or behind closed eyelids. We can't know — maybe even if they tell us — how lonely and distant literally anyone may feel, irrespective of their outward-facing persona. For instance, an in-depth survey of loneliness conducted by Cigna states that heavy users and never-users of social media rank very similarly in terms of loneliness. Maybe this is too anecdotal but there is a stigma against men expressing their loneliness in plain, simple language. 

Women and men have completely different suicide profiles.

According to therapist Mary Kay Cocharo, “It would appear that women are more likely to suffer from psychological problems such as depression, to experience suicidal thoughts and to make suicide attempts than men. Despite that, men are about three times more likely to die by suicide. This seems to be true because men tend to use more lethal means, like guns or hanging, which are more likely to result in death.”

I'd be surprised if men were any less lonely than women but it's pretty clear that even when the target is one's self, it’s not terribly surprising that men’s penchant for violence is likely more lethal than women’s. 

One CDC report focused on the prevalence suicide examined state-by-state data from 2009 to 2016 and found an increased rate of 30 percent over eight years. All but one state (Nevada) saw an increase in suicide rates and half of all states had a suicide increase of 30 percent or more.

We’re up to roughly 45,000 suicides per year with the last reliable data in 2016. Over that time, female suicide rate increased by around 50 percent, while the male rate “only” increased by 16 percent. However, American men still die by suisice at 3.5 times the rate American women do despite the recent trend. 

The most likely modality of suicide is firearm. The punch is that 33,000 Americans are killed every year by guns, with some 60 percent of those being suicides. Further, suicide by firearm is so prevalent that you could count the raw number of white males dying by suicide via firearm and it would be roughly equal to all other firearm deaths.

When it comes to gun violence, we typically focus on gangs and mass shootings, however, white male suicides are roughly equal to all other gun deaths combined (accidents, crime, self-defense, et cetera). 

The math makes sense. White people own a lot of guns (per Pew, nearly half of all white men own guns) and men are more prone to spontaneous violence. Gunshot wounds, by their nature, don’t tend to leave much time for second-guessing. It’s easy to understand why men are more likely to die in a suicide attempt.

But why do white men kill themselves at the second-highest rate amongst American ethnic groups? (Note: Native Americans/American Indians/Native Alaskans appear to have a higher and elevating rate compared to white males. See: Suicide Prevention Resource Center). But why do white men, specifically, kill themselves?

A writer I very much admire named Damon Young has rhetorically (and sarcastically, and maybe even ironically) asked in writing and in video, “Why are white men so angry?” The implication being, “What does the dominant cultural group have to be mad, sad, confused, suicidal about?”

The CDC report referenced above states that over half of suicides are by people not previously diagnosed with “mental health problems,” which could be a case of poor diagnosis, the fickle nature of self-harm, or the virtual shambles of our national mental healthcare. 

Again, referencing the CDC report, it should be noted that substance abuse, relationship status, physical pain/health and occupational/legal/financial stress are listed as the likeliest of contributing factors.   

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Mark Goulston posits that hormones play a major factor in his understanding of suicide. 

By virtue that testosterone is contributing factor in male aggression, you’d guess that young men are more prone to fatal self-harm. However, Goulston’s theory posits the opposite and the CDC data backs it up. Men are progressively more likely to commit suicide as they age.

Yes, things like poor health and financial woes can tend to compound as people age, but the same likelihood doesn’t apply to women. Women’s suicide rates tend to peak during perimenopause and menopause (i.e., ages 45–54), which, in some women, is accompanied by particularly acute hormonal upheaval.

I don't want to assume everyone thinks like I do. White guys don't all think alike. There are dudes I played baseball with whom I share eye color and socioeconaomic upbringing with and nothing else. However, someone may try to correlate shifting social dynamics (re: privilege) for a role in these statistics. 

While someone may conjecture that societal upheaval feels like you’ve been moved to coach when everyone else starts getting to use the first-class lounge as rationale for white male suicide rates. This idea is lacking in empathy and articulation, and is likely wrong.

RELATED: The Desperation Of Depression: Why We Must Show Compassion

My guess is that isolation is a huge factor in American suicide in general — male and white suicide in particular.

I can’t say that white men are any more isolated than any other American group, but they likely do, by virtue of income, have the ability to survive without really interacting in person with real, live, friendly people. I’m not blaming online porn or Netflix or the food-ordering app Seamless even if I was planning on titling this piece “Your Loneliness Is Killing You."

In war journalist Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, he likens Native American tribes to American military combat units with the very, very real understanding that being left alone likely means death. In fact, intentional ostracization from the group (in both cases) is a shameful fate worse than death.

In both a combat platoon and a tiny community, every member is incredibly valuable in staving off the specter of death irrespective of their place in the hierarchy. Again, anecdotally, the multitude of people probably feel as if they lack a tribe - maybe this is part of the pull of identity politics - 

One of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau seems apt here: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” However, in the instance of one group dying from suicide more than another, it’s hard to point to that as a diagnostic aphorism.

Yes, some people (men, mostly) act rashly due to bad news. Yes, some men would rather not face the consequences of bad luck or bad decisions. Yes, some men would rather die than have to endure torturous physical (or mental) pain. Surviving sexual trauma or experiencing military deployment in conflict zones (or the multitude of other high-stress scenarios) can for sure add to the daily toll of pain some endure. 

However, I firmly believe that most men (in "the west," anyways) take their own lives not necessarily because life is too hard but more likely that they’re not recognized as being valuable.

I'm trying to be detached but all writing is inherently about the writer and this is personal. I’m not suicidal but I can understand why someone may be. I’ve committed more acts of self-harm than I’m comfortable admitting. I’m lonely but as a person approaching 40, I realize that my loneliness is chronic rather than specifically about the people who are around me.

I realize that blaming loved ones for not reading my mind when I might need them is a kind of ego-flaying self-sabotage. I also know that despite donating to charities that I value, giving blood and periodically slapping homeless guys a fiver, I’m completely disconnected from the impact I have on my community and the world at large other than the little serotonin bump I get when I’m retweeted. That’s not a great way to go through life, and I’m guessing I’m not alone.  

There’s not a secret to life. Anyone who tells you differently is somewhere between a simpleton, a charlatan and a half-robot/half-Beverly Hills Bigfoot who wants to drill a hole in your head and turn your brains into a gelatin energy drink to sell to ghouls at yoga retreats.

However, it’s pretty clear that for men (or, you know, any person) to truly fit into any social group, their contributions have to be valued and their company unconditionally accepted rather than tolerated. That and get the barest amount of regular exercise.

I don’t pretend to know anything about the details of Brody Stevens' death or life. But my heart absolutely dropped when I read an Instagram post by comedian Ardie Fuqua mourning Steven's passing.

Given the outpouring of kudos, it seems obvious that he (Stevens) was respected by virtually everyone he came across, or at the very least, a highly sought-after podcast guest.

I suppose we can have empathy and let our imaginations fill in the part of his struggles that we’ll never definitively learn. The darkest, most vicious thoughts I experience are when I’m embracing the kind of solitude that I paradoxically crave.

Loneliness and dark thoughts are valuable, but they need the contrast of outside validation and enthusiastic high fives to be anything other than sucking black holes. All this said, it’s probably a good idea to tell people what you like about them and their actions rather than just imagine they see it in the mirror.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing aggressive suicidal thoughts, please reach out for immediate help: Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

RELATED: To Anyone With Suicidal Thoughts — You May Be Lonely, But You Are Not Alone

Tom Miller is a writer and performer based in New York. He's been a mechanical engineer and a banker. He's been the general manager and coordinating video producer at YourTango for 12 years. His side-chick is acting and improvised comedy. 

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