Dance

Two Feet Twitter Suicide Scare: Mental Health Experts on How to Help Those in Danger

Two Feet
Tonje Thilesen

Two Feet

The Internet has brought fans and musicians closer together than ever before, closing the once-yawning gap between the stars on screens and stages and those who support their artistry with hard-earned cash and likes. Earlier this week, that closeness was put in sharp relief when New York-based singer/songwriter Two Feet (born Zachary William "Bill" Dess), alarmed fans with what he referred to as a Twitter "suicide note," captioned "goodbye." 

In the tweet, the singer -- who was slated to play Lollapalooza in Chicago this weekend -- wrote, "Most of my fans live here on twitter and Spotify. I want to tell all 12k of you that I love you so much. I hope I've helped you in some manner," explaining in the since-deleted note that he was planning to upload some unfinished music to his SoundCloud account. "I know it may be odd posting a suicide note on twitter. But thats the world we live in. I've been completely honest with you forever. Anyway I love you." 

The post immediately drew replies of support from a number of major artists as well as many fans, who told Two Feet that he was loved and urged him not to give up. A short time later, a person identifying themselves as Dess' father said he was at the hospital with his son, writing, "Bill is recuperating and being held for observation. He will survive. Thanks to everyone for their heartfelt concern."

In light of the incident, Billboard reached out to clinical forensic psychiatrists Dr. Vasilis Pozios and Dr. Praveen Kambam --  co-founders of psychiatric media consultancy Broadcast Thought -- for suggestions on what friends, family and fans should do when faced with this kind of life-or-death situation.

"Safety first," says Kambam of the priority in this scenario. "Whether you're a professional, a friend or a good Samaritan, trying to ensure the person’s safety is the first thing." Kambam, who has no first-hand knowledge of Dess' situation but was speaking in general terms about similar mental health crises, says that it's always appropriate to call authorities, especially if you don't know where the person is. That includes reaching out to social media companies like Twitter, who might be able to help locate that person based on their GPS coordinates and who sometimes have mental health professionals on staff to deal with such issues.

Twitter has a help page about self-harm and suicide that also counsels to seek help first by contacting the appropriate agencies specializing in crisis intervention and also alerting the team devoted to handling such threats of self-harm/suicide if you see them on Twitter. The site's approach to such self-harm and suicide threats reads: "After we assess a report of self-harm or suicide, Twitter will contact the reported user and let him or her know that someone who cares about them identified that they might be at risk. We will provide the reported user with available online and hotline resources and encourage them to seek help."

With the U.S. suicide rate increasing by more than 25 percent since 1999 -- suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the country in 2015 -- one of the things mental health professionals are increasingly concerned about is a phenomenon called "suicide contagion." The phrase, also sometimes called "copycat suicide," is defined as when "exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one's family, one's peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors." According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, direct or indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been show to precede "an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially adolescents and young adults." Pozios says the sharper spotlight on suicide in the wake of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and handbag designer Kate Spade's recent deaths has increased media attention in a way that can have unintended adverse effects.

"You want to get to the source of what you think sparked the contagion and social media companies have people monitoring content and, if necessary, they are able to temporarily shut down accounts or tamp down on the media that might be sparking the contagion," he says. When a person posts explicitly about their suicidal determination or potential method, both suggested that it could potentially encourage others to follow through on their plans, which is why getting a supportive reaction from the public might help change the outcome. 

"Suicide is getting a lot more attention in the media [lately], usually because of some unfortunate event, and in addition to informing the authorities another option is to call the [National] Suicide Prevention Hotline," says Kambam of 1-800-273-8255, the number that served as the title of a hit song by Logic and which provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress, or for those who want to speak to someone about how to help a friend in crisis.

Asked if posts referencing suicide might also be a proverbial "cry for help" from someone who is suffering from depression and is reaching out by sharing/posting their feelings in a public space, but perhaps not actually contemplating hurting themselves, Pozios says the risk of overreaction is worth it. "Even if somebody who doesn't intend to die is engaging in self-injury, they can still accidentally end up taking their lives," he says. "You have to try to intervene, which is asking a lot to put the onus on the general public, or people who are following someone on Twitter or Facebook." 

The fact that some of these incidents are unfolding in real time adds a greater urgency than in the past when the suicides of public figures such as Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain were revealed after the fact, when it was too late for anyone to intervene. "On the one hand, it's potentially kind of an unfair burden to put on someone," Kambam says. "But in general people are good-natured and will help if they have an opportunity to... And, this is my opinion, but when you see this in almost real time before it can be edited, it's a double-edged sword. You see it right away, so there's a potential to intervene and help that person before anything happens, but from a contagion standpoint you may see some things that you might otherwise be able to edit or not show in as graphic a way." 

Both agreed that a potential positive of an incident like the Two Feet one is that, according to Kambam, "it raises suicide awareness and might lead more people to seek help." 

For more information on how to help someone who is struggling emotionally or how to respond to suicidal language posted on social media, click here. In addition to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, counseling for the LGBTQ community is available from TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or text HOME to 741741 for a confidential conversation with a crisis counselor from Crisis Text Line. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline also offers a confidential chat window with counselors available 24/7.