When I ask Riley how he found r/SuicideWatch, Reddit’s ever-expanding suicide support community, he tells me he discovered it the same way many other people do — by typing “I want to kill myself” into the blank space of a Google search bar and scrolling past the hotlines and self-help listicles in search of something more relatable. Just a few weeks ago, the 26-year-old sous chef and friend of mine had decided suicide would be the best way to end to his struggle with debt and depression. When scouring the internet for a reason to stay, a link to SuicideWatch caught his eye. He took the bait and clicked.
The first post he read was titled, “I’m in the Queue for a Suicide Chat and There’s 54 People Ahead of Me.” That felt familiar.
“I’ve given up on those chats,” one commenter responded. “I’m here if you want to talk, though.”
“Awesome there are so many here willing to chat,” wrote another, referring to the nearly 300 people who’d weighed in on the topic. “How many times a day can you speak openly about suicide to people?”
Riley was amazed. He’d never been able to talk about these things with his friends or family, yet here was a Reddit page, of all places, where thousands of people were reaching out for help in their most vulnerable moments. In his words, he’d stumbled upon a “catharsis factory.”
SuicideWatch is a special corner of Reddit, where people struggling with suicidal thoughts can go to find compassion, support and solidarity. Under the veiled anonymity of a screen name, redditors can speak openly and honestly about what they’re going through, safely revealing the darkest parts of themselves to a network of strangers who tend to understand what they’re going through better than the average friend or loved one.
In turn, the SuicideWatch community and its moderators respond with a concern and tenderness that’s hard to find elsewhere Reddit — instead of being ridiculed, shamed or egged on, people who reach out for help on SuicideWatch are met with resources, empathy and the always-present refrain, “You can talk to me. I’ve been there.” As of today, SuicideWatch has more than 100,000 subscribers.
However, while SuicideWatch is a community for anyone teetering on the edge, still-to-be-published research by Darla Still and Amelia Blume of the University of Arizona has revealed it’s making a particular impact on one group in particular — boys and men like Riley who may feel that, for one reason or another, they can’t talk about their emotions or seek help.
Riley was brought up the same way many men are — with the belief that males should be self-reliant and in control of their feelings. His dad seemed to agree — Riley remembers crying on the soccer field after a particularly devastating loss to a group of athletically superior fourth graders and being told to “grow a pair” by the one person he looked up to the most. “Are you a girl?” his father asked. “You gotta act tough.”
Acting “tough” might be sage advice for a 10-year-old on a losing soccer team, but it’s a hell of a burden to place on boys and men who may be struggling with mental illness (and men in general, for that matter). Acting tough is still acting, after all — underneath the character of “manly man” is a person with real emotions; emotions that can have dangerous consequences if unaddressed.
Increased suicidality is one of them. As Still and Blume explain, norms that prevent men from expressing emotion and seeking help have been directly linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts. Given the prevalence of these norms in media, religious texts, folklore and even modern medicine, it’s no coincidence that while more women attempt suicide, far more men die from it. Roughly three times as many men kill themselves as women, and in 2016, 70 percent of suicide victims were white, middle-aged men.
“The desire to appear invulnerable blocks traditionally masculine men from using life’s most effective method for dealing with trauma, which is talking about it,” says Ronald F. Levant, a masculinities researcher, professor of psychology at the University of Akron and the co-editor of the book The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. “When emotions are repressed, stress builds up and men can start to feel like they’re falling down a rabbit hole.”
Worse yet: “Asking for help creates a lot of shame for men who adhere to traditional gender roles,” Levant continues. “This leaves them with no emotional outlet. For men who repress their feelings like that, suicide can feel like the only option.”
And so, an anonymous, online community like SuicideWatch can provide a crucial alternative. It’s not a place where men have to be “tough” or pretend everything’s under control. Rather, because they can conceal their identity, boys and men of all masculine expressions can ask for help and be as emotionally vulnerable as they need to be. They’re also free to be as empathetic and supportive of others as they want, all things that fall far outside the narrow definition of masculinity traditional gender roles impose.
In their forthcoming paper, “Dude, I Want to Kill Myself: Displays of Masculinity, Emotion, and Suicidal Ideation in Online Support Groups,” Still and Blume found thousands of examples of men helping other men on SuicideWatch with an abundant compassion rarely seen in in-person interactions. In one, titled “My name Is John,” a (presumably) male redditor talks about an intense heartbreak he experienced and the crisis that followed. “The truth is, I’ve never had more than a couple friends at a time, and I’ve never been in a relationship,” he writes. “Every day this eats me up. Every day I wake up, I’m disappointed that I didn’t fucking die in my sleep.”
John’s vulnerability and the depth of his emotion are exquisitely related to nearly 400 people whose responses run the gamut from “Thank you bro, it helps a bit” to “I love you man, thank you for this.” However while Still and Blume tell me responses to posts like John’s are helpful coming from all types of people, the ones that convey gender-specific empathy tend to be the most useful for suicidal men because it shows them they’re far from alone.
This was the biggest revelation for Riley, who didn’t realize so many other men felt like he did — unable to talk about their problems (or without the resources to do so) but in desperate need of help with them. “I saw myself reflected in so many people on the site,” he says. “It gave me a different outlook on things.” Reading about other people’s experiences provided him momentary amnesia about his own problems. They hardly disappeared when he logged on, but they started to take a back seat once he got out of his own head and into someone else’s. A few weeks after discovering SuicideWatch, he still felt like dying was an attractive option, but he says it “really helped” to know there were thousands of people out there finding reasons to live another day.
That said, Levant, Still and Blume all agree SuicideWatch shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a better alternative to suicide hotlines or in-person support, just a different one. “Online communities might be the only choice for people who won’t do in-person therapy,” says Levant. “That’s definitely better than nothing. However, I strongly urge people to see a therapist face-to-face. Therapists are trained to pick up on non-verbal cues, and being online just isn’t the same as being in a room with someone where you can read their body language and hear the tone of their voice.”
Instead of relying on either as a mutually exclusive option then, Levant recommends supplementing in-person therapy with online interaction. “The social support you get from 100,000 people who feel just like you can’t be underestimated,” he says.
As for Riley, the degree to which SuicideWatch pulled him back from the ledge remains to be seen. “I think a part of me wanted to live and see if things could get better,” he says. “SuicideWatch helped me see it, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the only reason I’m here today — just one of them.”
But for the thousands of people seeking support on the subreddit, that’s definitely something.